Sunday, December 31, 2006

Hacking Democracy - again

I have posted on this documentary before when it was first released in the USA. Written and co-directed and produced by my nephew, Simon Ardizzone, it provoked a certain amount of avuncular pride. The Christmas break gave me the opportunity to watch the DVD Simon sent me. This was shared with my friends in their house high up overlooking the village. I suppose it was its Greek premiere.

I was nervous about viewing it for the first time with friends but needn't have worried; it is a gripping film. It contains the key ingredients for a good documentary, painstaking research, an intriguing topic and a star. In this case, in contrast to the egoism of the increasingly unconvincing populist Michael Moore, the filmmakers have simply provided the vehicle to allow their subjects to shine - the extraordinary Seattle grandmother and writer Bev Harris and her fellow activists from Black Box Voting.

The film exposes one aspect of the layers of alleged electoral fraud in the USA, the use of computer voting machines, specifically those manufactured by Diebold. It shows how, contrary to the corporation's assurances, the voting machines can be easily hacked to allow the falsification of the vote. Given the closeness of the last two presidential contests, and especially the importance of Florida and Ohio where some of the more controversial practices were identified, the issue could hardly be more apposite.

The remarkable part of the film is the picture that emerges of the obsessive democratic commitment of the activists who have come together to expose these flaws. It is a picture of extraordinarily diligent and courageous citizens seeking to defend their democracy from corruption. Though there is malicious pleasure in watching squirming executives searching for the weasel words to escape the truth, the real inspiration comes from the enthusiasm of these dedicated activists who personify the nature of a democratic society seeking a form of governance that matches their own expectations. It is an excellent, lucid and disturbing film – (OK I am biased but it is good). It may well be shown on Channel 4. Watch out for it but in the meantime follow the links in this post.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Good digestion ...

This is how my Greek friend greeted the local taxi driver on a stroll round the village after a large Christmas meal. Greeks are big on well wishing and what could be a better seasonal salutation for those of us in the world fortunate enough to be able to feast.

The future's bright?

Will Hutton in Sunday's Observer had an optimistic list of the ideas that will reshape the future for the better. I would quibble with some of his points. The techno-enthusiasm certainly seems overblown. There is only one thing that projections of a technological future have in common - they all turn out to be wrong. His take on foreign affairs is decidedly alarming. I do not see how a forced necessity to do a deal with two of the worst regimes on earth, Iran and Syria, in order to escape the mess left behind after removing a third, ushers in a wonderful new world of interdependence. However, he is better when he picks up on Richard Layard's work on happiness.

Layard has opened up some interesting discussions on public policy, though his neo-Benthamism is hardly convincing. I really don't think that modern psychology can make the "felicific calculus" a practical reality. What I do like though is the way he uses happiness as a concept to pertinently question conventional wisdom. For instance, why should the interests of producers not matter as much as those of consumers? After all, we are both at different times of our life. Then there were the awful clichés that flooded the media about the "sclerotic" German economy needing a good "dose of reform" and of how Germans had to learn to live without their "generous" pensions and benefits. The big question that is begged is why? Why shouldn't German wealth be used for the comfort and security of Germans? As for the over-generosity, governments are frequently over-generous with my money (see Nick Cohen's latest piece) but rarely towards me.

However, I would take this further and suggest that the notion of happiness could usefully be used as a tool for the analysis of ideologies. We are cursed with a whole range of political beliefs that are designed to make us miserable. This is arguably a form of pathological thinking. There are soft versions, for instance, Margaret Thatcher wanting to make Britain less "cosy" and more "invigorating" and management-speak that goes on about "challenges" (how I do not want to be challenged). What seems more important at the moment are those beliefs that seek the general imposition of unhappiness on the world. This 'hard miserablism' takes two forms, those that would make others unhappy and those that would promote unhappiness as a universal condition of humankind.

Racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of mass persecution inflict misery and horror on others purely because of the fact that they are the other. However, some ideologies seek to impose unhappiness as the normal state of human existence through ubiquitous violence, the celebration of struggle or enforced asceticism. They urge self-sacrifice and deride comfort, ease and ordinary private lives as "decadent" or as examples of "false consciousness". Fascism and Islamism loom large in this respect.

In facing this ideological confrontation, perhaps it is not enough to counter with the liberal concepts of liberty, tolerance and economic security. Maybe we should become militant hedonists and in the relentless pursuit of a happy life for ourselves make others as happy as can be given the complexities of life and the universal tragedy of mortality. Is it now time to celebrate pleasure as a form of liberation?

Sunday, December 24, 2006

It's Christmas Eve

And the promised sunshine has not arrived. A low grey mist hangs over the village. The raw cold attacked my fingers this morning as I gathered in the day's firewood. Costas, our local butcher, has made his usual modernist display by crazily throwing strings of lights over the tree outside his house. Sadly, now he has finished the second floor, there is no illuminated plastic Santa climbing his chimney as usual. There are Christmas lights in the village by the sea front, but it is virtually deserted with only a few locals gathering in Nikos' café. All is quiet …

So, as I escape the commercialism of an English Christmas all I can say to the friends and strangers that may pass by this blog is,

Καλά Χριστούγεννα
Ευτυχισμένος ο καινούργιος χρόνος

(And if you can't guess what that means look at Brian Church's excellent book, "Learn Greek in 25 Years". You may not pick up much Greek but you won't stop laughing.)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Oh Mr Porter …

Into Volos yesterday for some Christmas shopping and there in a newsagent was a three-day-old copy of the Observer crammed with blogging material.

I am ignoring the customary provocative feature on diet books. Instead, I was drawn to comment on a number of articles. First, was a really poor piece by Jasper Gerard on heroin use, inspired by the serial killer in Ipswich whose victims were all in prostitution to feed their habit. He argued that there is a need to eradicate the Afghanistan poppy fields (humanely, he at least suggests buying the stuff and funding crop substitution before it became necessary to "bomb the buggers") in order to take heroin off the streets. He could do with some simple lessons in market economics. The demand from an addict is inelastic. Once supply drops, the price will rise. That means more crime and more prostitution to pay for it. Heroin addiction is not a supply problem; it is demand led.

In the wake of the crimes, the media has focused on the impact of drugs and the consensus is that drug use is a response to misery, a very real opiate of the masses. But my current wine consumption is not due to wretchedness; it is to reinforce my unbounded pleasure at being here. It helps that I can buy half a kilo of "loose wine" (for some reason it is nominally sold by weight rather than volume in Greece though the quantities are the same) for €1.50 but even if it was more expensive I would still be drinking it. Any drugs policy that does not admit that taking drugs is actually pleasurable, until it becomes a tyrannically urgent necessity through addiction, is doomed to fail.

The Ipswich murders are also helping to fill the column inches on prostitution itself. The liberal consensus seems to rest on some form of state control and regulation. How they need to read the great 19th Century campaigner on prostitution, Josephine Butler, whom I have blogged on before. Her humane, deeply moral libertarianism needs to be rediscovered, not least by the columnists turning themselves into instant 'experts'.

The sanity in the paper was provided by the consistently excellent Nick Cohen on conspiracy theory in the wake of the Stevens Report into the death of Diana. Reinforcing his conclusions, and taking them further by showing how they can be used by governments as a tool of repression, was the report on the desperate plight of the foreign medical staff in Libya facing the death penalty, having already spent seven years in prison, for a conspiracy to deliberately infect patients with AIDS, despite the evidence pointing to poor hygiene practice as the cause. There is an excellent article on the case in Open Democracy. Michel Thieren writes,

"Today, a judge trumped science to protect non-humanitarian interests, condemned six innocents to deaths, and made ignorance prevail over justice in fooling hundreds of parents into believing that their children had been poisoned and/or murdered by their nurses and doctor".

However, the crowning glory was Henry Porter abandoning the issue of civil liberties to write an idiosyncratic "radical manifesto to revitalise Britain". What a curious agenda this is. He makes the standard point about the lack of choice due to the current centrist consensus, though I would demur and point out that the political consensus is actually right wing. In fact, Cameron's attempt to drag the Tory Party back to the centre ground it once occupied is making it look decidedly leftist. A bewildered electorate can only look on and abstain.

Porter's five suggestions didn't appear that radical to me, nor did I find myself reinvigorated. The piece read like a school project on "what I would do with …" Parliament would be "totally reformed" simply by having 145 fewer and better paid MPs. His suggestion for a means-tested NHS ignores all the research on the failings of means testing and then, completely without any empirical basis, comes the following charge,

"It must also be said that NHS staff can be slapdash, rude and disdainful of people's need for personal dignity and privacy. Paying customers would soon put an end to that."

All I would just ask if he has ever been a paying customer trying to get sense out of a customer service call centre?

And so it continues. The idea of a statutory sabbatical once every fifteen years of work would be welcome but hardly earth shattering. As for preventing foreign companies or individuals owning a controlling interest in more than two national newspapers, I take it that means that as long as the mega-rich fascist is British it is OK to own as many as they like. How long do you think it would be before Rupert got his citizenship?

Perhaps the bit on prisons is most indicative of the way that good sense can be brought down by shoddy thinking.

"First-time offenders and those under 25 years of age would be given the chance to attend physically and intellectually testing courses".

What do second offenders get? What about the over 25's or are they past it? At least I know something about this, as my University is proud to run courses at Higher Education level in prisons. The work is fantastic, the ability and dedication of the students are legendary. Rarely do they fit into the under 25 first offender category. Higher Education in prisons can transform lives at whatever age and how ever many offences have been committed. Wouldn't it be nice to see columnists actually do a little research before proclaiming their brilliant new ideas?

Sorry, Henry. 4/10. Must try harder.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


That is the state of my brain at the moment. Greece is more colourful than England, even on a chill misty day. The rains have left the ground covered with lush grass, the olive leaves are silvery whilst the olive harvest is in full swing, the citrus trees are covered with fruit - bright oranges and lemons contrasting with their dark green leaves.

A brief scan of the Guardian web site, some interesting posts at Harry's Place and despair at Normblog's Ashes triumphalism have failed to rouse the blogger in me. Instead, I am more interested in Sophia and Stathis' fine for placing an illegal canopy over the outside of their taverna, the repairs to the paraleia after the damage caused by torrential rain and land slips in the Autumn, progress on the new harbour and the way that Iannis has pruned my fruit trees in return for harvesting them and grazing his sheep in the garden when I am away.

This is a time of small things, something we all need.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Bliss ...

This is the best stress relief in the world. I am in Greece, in a small village in Pelion in the most extravagantly beautiful corner of this wonderful country. Posting may now be sporadic!

English newspapers do net get to the village in the winter and there was little in the English Language weekly, the Athens News. Much depends on how much I want to follow the world on the Internet. Sipping wine in front of a roaring log fire, yes Greece does have winters, calms my urgent need to communicate so I shall just indulge in some blatant, if unpaid, product placement. My friends Tim and Aphroula run a wonderful little holiday company out here. Check out their web site, and if you are sensible, buy a holiday this summer. Pelion is one place few can forget.

I intend to write an article on Individualist Anarchism, but there is also a vine to trim, a garden to be dug and trees to prune, let alone the enticements of Sakis and Soula's taverna. When one enters a small community the world shrinks and the little, individual things become more important, as does the great pastimes of sitting and looking. I shall be doing much of both. This is my version of an activity holiday. To paraphrase the dying words of George Vth, "bugger skiing".

Friday, December 15, 2006

Stoutism - again

I just heard a piece on radio 4 talking about proposals published in the BMJ for health warnings on clothes over a 40" waist for men and a size 16 for women. Obesity is such a problem apparently that it could "bankrupt the NHS". Well, how about siphoning off the savings on pensions from our early demise to pay for us disgusting fatties?

The whole thing is ridiculous, we may be fatter but we are living longer and longer. This is not about health but morality, a specious Puritanism that loathes the image of pleasure and subversion presented by fat people. Not that this image is true either. We just put on weight. So what?


Apologies for the lack of posts. This is one of the busiest weeks of the year as I clear up work before Christmas. This is compounded by three days of interviews for new tutors. This process is as amazing as it is tiring with some astonishingly talented people applying. One of them made a comment that stuck in my mind, "there are no bad learners, just bad teachers". Instinctively, I want to agree though I doubt whether I can shoulder that degree of guilt. It is indicative of the idealism that still burns despite the best attempt of authority to smother it with a blanket of bureaucracy. There is still hope.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Inside every thin person …

The old cliché has always been that inside every fat person there is a thin one trying to get out. Now we apparently have Tofis. Yes, thin outside, fat inside. Is this a sign of successful undercover work by the Stout Liberation Front? Or are these thinnies are just jealous?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Ho, ho, ho

Really nice piece here by Oliver Burkeman on the myth of the abolition of Christmas, 'winterval' and all, by the PC lobby.

None of this exists. No one at all is abolishing Christmas, banning Christmas decorations and all the rest of the things that get the tabloids hot under the collar. It is all made up. The article is excellent on the combination of idleness and malice of the right wing press and the unholy (or should that be holy?) alliance of Muslim and Christian religious fundamentalists at war with secularism who are pushing this fabrication.

Actually, they all miss the root of secularism at Christmas; it's called Christmas. Overspend, overeat, overdrink and quarrel with your family. What could be more secular than that?

Spam, spam, spam ...

This site is being spammed to death so I will probably be turning off comments. I was tolerant of it until one of the many waved a red rag to this somewhat rotund bull:

Adipex is considered one of the most effective weight loss drugs of our times.

I am not putting up with this exploitation of body-fascist induced neuroses so the comments box will be off unless I get some real comments.

Apologies to anyone who reads this blog who actually wants a fake Rolex, selection of porn or Viagra. A tip, download your email, there will be plenty more links there.


I have just been told of word verification. It is now on for the site. Let's see if it works.

Funding Hedges

There is a snide piece in the Guardian diary by Jon Henley about Oliver Kamm. He writes,

But what with the excellent Iraq Study Group finally publishing its long-awaited encomium to Mr Tony's action-packed Iraqi adventure and all, we would imagine this column's favourite hedge-fund-trading leftist and staunch advocate of the war, Mr Oliver Kamm, will be mighty relieved he's already pledged not to update his important and influential blog for the whole of December. A shame, really; we were rather looking forward to Ollie's condemnation of the report's misguided authors as a pernicious bunch of Chomsky-reading Muslim-huggers.

Notice how he neatly avoids dealing with any of Kamm's carefully made arguments, with which I do not fully agree, instead Henley uses sarcasm and a sideswipe at Kamm's profession as a way of de-legitimising his comments.

Of course the whole point about Kamm's critique of the left is that it has abandoned its long tradition of internationalism, of the kind that sent volunteers to fight fascism in Spain, to become identical with conservative, isolationist appeasers, the very people who make up the Iraq Study Group. I think his case is proved. One-nil to Ollie.


I always thought that Melvyn Bragg bluffs his way through "In our Time" and isn't quite the polymath he tries to seem to be. This week there was a programme on something I know about and my suspicions were confirmed. It was still a good programme on Anarchism with nice contributions from Peter Marshall and Ruth Kinna. There was nothing about the Individualists though, a sad omission from Anarchist history that I am trying to correct at the moment.

Good advice, which we will all ignore

Apologies for the lack of posts, work pressure is intense at this time of year. Never mind, escape is near.

The latest Normblog profile is of Geoff Robinson and he has a tip for us bloggers:

What would be your main blogging advice to a novice blogger? >
Refer to facts rather than expressing opinions; don't just quote silly statements by people you dislike.

Geoff, that is the whole fun of it!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A lonely impulse of delight

Last night I had one those moments of delight that would be familiar to anyone who loves reading. I had tortured myself by watching the second half of Manchester City's dire 0-0 draw with Watford and then scanned my shelves for something to read. There was Bohumil Hrabal's novella, 'Too Loud a Solitude', bought some time ago but unread. For the next two hours I disappeared into Hrabal's world, lost in prose, unable to surface until the last page. Fighting the temptation to read it all again, I went to bed.

A little while ago, I made my daily journey to Normblog and there was one of his writer's choice features. Chris Simms had chosen to write on M.R. James' classic ghost story 'Oh, whistle and I'll come to you, my lad'. I love James' stories and they too are reminiscent of my childhood. Simms reckons that, "At its heart, the tale addresses the dangers of surrounding yourself with books and leading a solitary life that retreats ever further from the outside world".

That is the theme of 'Too Loud a Solitude', but rather than being about an archetypical bookish professor its main protagonist is a worker, a man who pulps books yet loves them. You can begin to glimpse the complexities. The basis is profound social comment, but this is a book whose humour, pathos and beauty stand above meaning. It is perfect art.

Here is just one passage from the beginning and I defy any reader to fail to recognise this experience.

"… when I read, I don't really read; I like to pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel."

The novella has now infused me. I won't forget it.

Monday, December 04, 2006


Oh dear, I seem to have 'not-another-phobia-phobia'.

How many phobias can you have these days? Russophobia seems to be the new one. The seemingly litigious Neil Clark makes his customary relativist argument that we should overlook the sins of Putin (the flat-rate tax; the "partial marketisation of Russia's education and health systems"; his "bloody campaign of repression in Chechnya"; the "chasmic" gap between rich and poor) because "an independent Russia stands in the way of their (neo-conservatives) plans for global hegemony". This theme of my enemy's enemy is my friend is a well worn one that I reject in favour of a consistent left liberalism. I suppose I am tyrannophobic.

This isn't my main point though. There is now a tendency to add the suffix phobia to any critical political stance in order to discredit it. It is a casual, unthinking habit, much in the same way that "gate" was appended to any scandal. However, phobia normally means an irrational fear. What happens if your fear is rational? Are you still phobic? What if you don't fear but hate? Perhaps The Plain English Campaign should stop targeting Germaine Greer's use of Kantian terminology and pick up on this. Let's face it, fear of Muslims is ridiculous, hatred of Muslims is dangerously prejudiced, fear of terrorism is rational, hatred of tyranny is human. The use of the phobic suffix throws a derogatory blanket over a number of completely distinct positions and, in doing so, reduces debate to sloganising. Let's get rid of it and return to critical thought and the use of English.

Democracy or dumbing down

Two views on blogging:

First, Jasper Gerrard:

"Vodcasts and blogs are to the noughties what graffiti was to the Seventies: mindless scrawls reading: 'I woz ere.' It says: 'I'm a moron, but worship me anyway.' …
Bloggers are the codgers who used to write letters in green ink banging on about speed humps or Judao-Freemason conspiracies".

In contrast, Robert Tait in Tehran:

"With some 7.5 million surfers, Iran is believed to have the highest rate of web use in the Middle East after Israel. The net's popularity has prompted an estimated 100,000 bloggers, many opposed to the Islamic regime. Some blogs are substitutes for Iran's once-flourishing, but now largely suppressed, reformist press".

Instinctively, and obviously, I approve of the latter and I don't like the snobbish rubbishing of any open method of communications that does not require the moderation of an editorial board.

Jasper Gerrard does qualify his remark by, rather patronisingly saying, "They probably include gifted amateurs whose vodding and blogging will earn them a proper job. As for the rest, well, everyone has a right to write; but a right to be heard still has to be earned". Presumably, this means that amateurs like Norman Geras might get a proper job, just like those erudite masters of the English language who sometimes lurk on the Guardian's opinion page, and then we might be able to read him with respect.

Blogging is for me a simple form of self-indulgence, but I have also learnt much from a number of distinguished bloggers, all anyone has to do is to exercise their judgement. I am certain that I am as capable of making my own mind up about the quality of the blogs I read, just as I am of abandoning another ghastly Guardian article about the travails of being middle-class in London after the first few lines.

Saturday, December 02, 2006


The new edition of Democratiya is out. As always it looks excellent, even more so this time as there is an article by me!

I am really proud to be included in what is one of the best political journals around. There is a lot of good reading in there.