Fishy Tales

23 May 2005

Bloody Oil

I've belatedly realised that the cause of most problems in the world is access to and control of natural resources. In fact it seems strange that I ever (implicitly) thought that things had changed from a time when people would fight over who owned a particular tree or could drink from a well right through to the World Wars, and on into the present. Guilty of idealism and selective ignorance as charged, m'Lud.

Anyway, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to see that the most crucial natural resource at the moment is oil. Our economy, even civilisation, remains mostly (70%ish) oil-based. And it's likely to stay that way for a good while yet because of the huge cost of changing infrastructure. You also don't have to be a rocket scientist to see that oil is a non-renewable source of energy, that it is going to become more and more difficult to find, becoming more and more expensive, until only the ridiculously rich can afford it.

The big question is when.

A BBC column back in June 2004 - Is the world's oil running out fast? - presented the viewpoint of ASPO, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil. Their opinion is that global oil production will peak very soon (around 2010), and may even have peaked already. Because oil is provided by private companies whose stock value will be affected, we aren't likely to get an honest assessment of oil reserves from them. The same may be true of governments of oil-rich countries. Also estimating reserves is inherently complex. However, the fact that Shell fell foul of overestimating reserves four times not long ago, and the fact that:
the number of major new oil fields discovered around the world fell to zero for the first time in 2003, despite an obvious increase in technological expertise
would seem to indicate ASPO are on the right lines.

As oil production peaks, furthermore, the Middle Eastern OPEC states (Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Libya, UAE) will quite probably have a 50% share of the market, giving them a stranglehold on the world economy should they wish to use that power.

In other words, it's all downhill from here. No more cheap oil, fighting/underhand politics over the remainder (mainly in the Middle East), economies struggling, restrictions on transport, probably riots, states of emergency, probably more authoritarian governments, etc, etc.

There are glimmers of hope, however.
Crucially, it's not only a disgruntled minority that can see which way the wind is blowing. Increasingly it's governments who are having to face up to what is, after all, a potential global catastrophe.

There's an excellent article in Wired spelling out how well-placed China is to be at the forefront of an energy revolution, a significant (and scary) statistical fact being the spur:
In the absence of new regulations, pollution-related illness will suck up as much as 15 percent of the country's gross domestic product by 2030.

and also:
After food, oil is the most important issue for Chinese economic planners. Without an increasing supply of oil, high GDP growth will be impossible, creating unemployment and social unrest, potentially threatening the government's hold on power. That's not all. Dependency on foreign oil... inevitably leads to war.
Because China has relatively little in the way of oil-associated infrastructure - and also, let's face it, because there's so much central government control - it's in an enviable position of being able to start afresh.

But now even neo-cons in the US are going green on grounds of national security. I can see that movement becoming a trickle and then a flood, once people start thinking about oil dependency and how it leaves us at the mercy of others. Especially when we heartily dislike those others and would like to at the very least give them a piece of our mind.

We could end up with a modern equivalent of Victory Gardens : millions of individual homes with their own backyard generators, be they solar panels, wind turbines, biomass generators, whatever, all generating at least a proportion of the energy required in a home. And some even generating more energy than required and selling it on to the National Grid (or saving it for later, perhaps?).

If the US went that way, the world could and probably would change. We would be set fair for the creation of a distributed Hydrogen Economy.

And that's one of the few ways - maybe the only way - there could be a victory in the War Against Terrorism.

But we do need to survive the transition period first.

9th June: Looks like biofuels are a potential way forward for cars, supported by Bush with Brazil well ahead of the game. Biofuel is mostly ethanol, so you could say drink-driving is here to stay.

17 May 2005

Tortuous Thread

Following the bloody crackdown on a civil uprising in Andijan last Friday (13th), a media spotlight has been on Uzbekistan. This has served to highlight the US/UK double standards on tyranny, and more particularly on tyrants with a taste for torture.

Former British Ambassador Craig Murray lost his job at least in part due to speaking out against human rights abuses in Uzbekistan and exposing US/UK hypocrisy. He continues to speak out as a free agent, writing in the Guardian and on his own website.

Martin Samuel really lays in to the US/UK governments in an article in The Times. He draws a compelling analogy between the Uzbek leader Karimov and Saddam Hussein: both murderous, torturing tyrants actively supported by the West while they support its interests. Which has made us, and continues to make us, complicit in Bush's famous "fire of freedom" being definitively tamed, even stamped out:
the freedom our precious coalition claims to be exporting around the world is not true freedom at all. Rather, it is freedom we are giving back, having conspired with sadists to take [it] away.

It's not pleasant to think about torture; it feels a little like staring at a particularly grisly car crash. But what we don't think about never changes, and the powers that be can take advantage of ignorance, playing with words and blurring definitions ("not torture, but interrogation") so they are never held to account. And let's face it, that suits many of us just fine - after all, it's not our problem, is it? That's why we have politicians.

But for those who think we may have a smidgeon of responsibility, let's start with definitions.

What is torture? See these Q&As on torture provided by Human Rights Watch. Also the UN Convention against Torture is cogently summarised in this Spokesman article.

There are some particularly lurid and notorious examples of torture, and nobody would argue with their definition as such - from Mediaeval tortures to Saddam's (likely fictional) "people shredder" to Karimov's (definitely really) boiling people alive.

But torture is clearly not just when a physical mark is left on the victim - there are plenty of ways of causing pain without leaving a mark. A particular favourite would appear to be binding people in unnatural positions for long periods, e.g. with limbs suspended. And torture is not restricted to physical pain. Mental torture is still torture, and a particularly apposite example is when threats are made, or suffering actually inflicted, on the victim's family.

As you'll notice by reference to the double standards articles above, it looks very like the US has gone well beyond merely sustaining an oppressive and murderous regime, and has actually flown terrorist suspects out to Uzbekistan for "rendition" = interrogation, Uzbek style.

And what about the UK? Well, it's not so surprising that criticism of the US rendition policy has been suppressed (cf Craig Murray). After all, they suffered 9/11 a few years ago, so they've been granted license to disregard the human rights of at least 3200 terrorist suspects.

However, we haven't left our support for torture there. The current UK policy is that evidence obtained through torture is admissible in UK courts, meaning that we:
  1. believe real evidence can be obtained through torture (as opposed to just a confession).
  2. give succour to people like Karimov, who will import suspects and export information, making money and gaining influence - and even praise - as a result.
Badger wrote an excellent post the end justifies the means in reaction to the Court of Appeal ruling back on 11 August 2004 that evidence obtained through torture was admissible. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Liberty and many other human rights organisations fought hard against the ruling...
... and thankfully, have continued to do so, with the net result that Liberty has announced that between 17/20 October 2005 the Law Lords will hear the submissions of these human rights organisations, who believe that under no circumstances should torture evidence ever be admissible.

As the brilliantly eloquent Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty puts it:
Liberty is confident that the House of Lords will endorse the overwhelming consensus of decent British people who do not wish to see our government complicit in acts of torture anywhere.

Secret intelligence gained by torture is unreliable, counter-productive and brings shame on what should be one of the worlds leading democracies.

Hear, Hear.

Let's all us "decent British people" get behind this one for once, rather than allow ourselves to be led once again into a moral sewer by our own government, led by the US government, led by its own worst fears.

Force Smiles

With the final Star Wars film Revenge of the Sith about to hammer the wallets of parents all over the world, I reckon it's a good time to mention a couple of affectionate spoofs/retellings of the Saga available on the Web.

First and foremost, go and check out Dude Studios, who offer Flash-animated (cartoon) 5-minute retellings of every film from the original trilogy and also of the Phantom Menace.
Great fun, particularly finding out how they have managed to condense the stories.

Then go and see how organic vegetables* are much better at playing Star Wars characters than people, at .
Utterly brilliant, and very funny indeed.

*Maybe George Lucas wrote his scripts with vegetables in mind?

15th August: About time I incorporated a proper link to the Star Wars Gangsta Rap (SE) . Well cool !

16 May 2005

..while the Sun Shines

Lovely quote spotted outside a closed-down bookshop in Cliffe High Street, Lewes:

Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well-preserved body - but rather to skid in sideways, champagne in one hand, strawberries in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and screaming "WOO HOO - What a ride!"

Also found on the Web in various places.

Reminds me of the saying I saw on a poster at Camden Lock many years ago - as it happens on a particularly fine, carefree sunny day, replete with drink, music and good company:

Enjoy life. This is not a rehearsal.

Again found all over the Web.

Unfortunately, being the old(ish) cynic I am these days, with just a smidgeon of Devil's Advocate, I can't help but react adversely to such prescriptive benevolence. Makes me want to swing the other way and be a stick-in-the-mud and/or arch-depressive.
As Jethro Tull so succinctly put it in Passion Play:

God of Ages, Lord of Time
Mine is the right to be wrong.

In any case, I doubt my kids would thank me if I took carpe diem too literally.
Or any more literally than I do anyway!

13 May 2005

Who Watches the Watchmen?

It's painfully ironic to me that, over the course of my life, direct fear of a nuclear holocaust appears to have dissipated while the actual risk of a nuclear holocaust has increased, especially so in recent years. Why? Because many years after the Cold War the mightiest nation in the world can't take its finger off the nuclear trigger; and given its current level of fear, the finger is increasingly twitchy.

The whole situation seems so bizarre as to be beyond belief. On any given day, as we go about our business, the president is prepared to make a decision within 20 minutes that could launch one of the most devastating weapons in the world. To declare war requires an act of congress, but to launch a nuclear holocaust requires 20 minutes’ deliberation by the president and his advisors. But that is what we have lived with for 40 years. With very few changes, this system remains largely intact..

This from an article on by ex US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, kindly linked from Cursor .

Note also that given the advanced technology of current nuclear weapons (and Mr McNamara graphically reminds us of their efficacy) , a "holocaust" need only require the detonation of one or two devices.

And again it starts to look like a case of dubious and selective law and morality for the US to call for the disarmament of countries like Iran and North Korea:

The Bush administration’s nuclear program, alongside its refusal to ratify the CTBT [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty], will be viewed, with reason, by many nations as equivalent to a U.S. break from the treaty. It says to the nonnuclear weapons nations, “We, with the strongest conventional military force in the world, require nuclear weapons in perpetuity, but you, facing potentially well-armed opponents, are never to be allowed even one nuclear weapon.”

But any country - even a so-called rogue state - isn't the real enemy these days, is it? That's Global Terrorism.

In which case who exactly are all of these thousands of nuclear weapons meant to be deterring from attacking the US?

Search me, guv.

But I think it's time to re-read Protect and Survive.

Straw Poll

I'm sure there was a time I liked Jack Straw. I've certainly admired his ability to express himself.
However, his star has certainly fallen now and the embers are barely glowing.

Here's a letter from Straw printed in the Guardian about the merits of our First Past the Post voting system, and why we really don't want any form of PR.

And here's a beautiful response from Nick Barlow, including some well-considered comments.

Straw's vision of manifestos as almost sacred - representing the contract between the winning party and the people - deserves still closer attention. I've always thought that the increasingly regular appointment of Independent and/or single-issue MPs like Martin Bell and, more recently, Dr Richard Taylor was significant. It's a very strong anti-party-politics statement.

I reckon it's a rare person that subscribe 100% to any Party's manifesto. That almost certainly includes many of the Party's own MPs. However there will be some pledges in a manifesto that most people in the country love, and some that most people really hate. The closest we'll get to a perfect manifesto, representative of the people's wishes, is one that is negotiated, mixing and matching from various sources, some of which may not even be written in any Party's manifesto.

And a significant step towards negotiated manifestos would be the introduction of a percentage of PR voting, whereby public preference for all the little shades of policy can be represented by the makeup of our elected assembly.

Straw appears to see a need for governments to negotiate and intelligently find common ground as something debilitating. I would say that in the medium to long term that makes him and all like him (who aren't prepared to work with diversity) political dinosaurs.

How we should be democratic is the substantive question, and a flexible approach to this question is entirely consistent with an unwavering commitment to democracy. Politicians who are the beneficiaries of a particular electoral system naturally wrap themselves in the mantle of democracy and need to be reminded occasionally that this mantle can come in different styles, all of them with patches.

John Allen Paulos in the Guardian [my emphasis]

08 May 2005

Changes for the Better

What I meant by the election going "as well as could be expected" in my last post was, of course, the fact that New Labour had its majority slashed, meaning that - hopefully - Blair's wings will be a little clipped.

And despite his talk of staying the full term before appointing a successor, it's looking increasingly likely he'll be obliged to step down within a year. And with Gordon Brown - possibly even anyone other than Blair - in charge, we're talking about a more straightforward job for the opposition parties, a clearer divide. Who knows? The Tories under a new leader may even get their act together as champions of individual freedom. That would really shake things up.

However, I have to agree with my mates at and elsewhere that the next big subject is electoral reform.
Thanks for the reminder noskidmarks, BTW.
From both sides of the political spectrum, the Sunday Times and the Guardian Blogs there is much made of the fact that our current electoral system is heavily biased in Labour's favour. Just to repeat (cos this still staggers me), it took:
  • 27,000 votes to elect a Labour MP
  • 44,000 votes to elect a Tory MP
  • almost 100,000 votes to elect a Lib Dem MP
How can this possibly be considered a healthy and representative electoral system?

I want the government to fulfil its promise of providing a referendum on the Jenkins Commission proposals - or just possibly a very well-reasoned alternative that provides for a similar or greater degree of Proportional Representation.
And it looks like that's exactly the desire of the Make My Vote Count Campaign

Right, I'm off to do some research!

06 May 2005

Election Result

As Wallace said :
"I suppose that went as well as could be expected.
[rubs bottom]
A touch painful on re-entry.."

04 May 2005

conservatives Will Kill Us All

Bugbear of the moment

A political historian (i.e. academic) on Radio 4 this morning was asked how he would vote.
His response was something like:
"Well, my dad was a miner, so I've always voted Labour and will vote New Labour now".

I'll bet there are also loads of people whose family/friends/peers have always voted Tory, so they will do the same. In a way that should be my bag, given that my dad was a self-made businessman who would always vote Tory, and now I'm a middle-class married "professional" who feels overburdened with tax - though more especially a nightmarishly complicated tax system which tends to mean that if you can't afford an accountant you're liable to get shafted. Gordon Brown can go hang as far as I'm concerned.

Then there are loads of people who won't vote at all. They may think they're making a statement about how disaffected they are, which is true to a very limited extent (and appropriate noises will be made by those in power after Polling Day), but actually non-voters are actively promoting the status quo. "No matter who you vote for, the government always gets in" is really saying that you would like less government interference in your life, in which case you should vote for the parties that best provide for that interest, that appear to value individual freedoms most highly. Or, of course, there may just be candidates for a party with opinions like your own who - wonder of wonders - don't toe the party line. You never know.

But I strongly suspect there is a general trend towards conservatism, towards people voting as they always have done. This is after all why there are so many safe Tory/Labour seats and so few marginal seats. Something greatly assisted by the odd bit of boundary redefinition, of course.

It's all about people acting according to preconceptions, people who feel they already know what all the parties and candidates are like, or who feel they already know what the result of the election is going to be.

If I were feeling generous, I could see this conservative tendency as the enduring faithfulness of a mother, child or dog - a touching unconditional devotion. But I'm not feeling generous. Instead I see it as at best laziness or submission to peer pressure; at worst a wilful ignorance, where we are driven by preconceived ideas and near-bigotry rather than taking a good look at how things actually are and making our own minds up on that basis.

But - and it's a big but - I'm betraying a bigotry of my own here, in tarring many of those who yet have to speak through the ballot box with the same brush. I, too, was inspired by that sense of the nation speaking loud and clear and with hope in its heart when New Labour first got into power. Maybe something similar could just happen again, though with a different party standing for our aspirations.

I hope so.

Electoral Reform

Does anyone remember the Jenkins Commission on Electoral Reform, back in 1998? It was set up by New Labour as part of its manifesto pledge, and what's more, we were promised a referendum on any changes recommended.

Jenkins (RIP 2003) proposed that a percentage of seats in Westminster (100-200) should be determined by Proportional Representation (or more accurately Alternative Vote Plus/AV+). This would make Westminster more representative of the electorate, and almost certainly cater much better for sections of the electorate that have strong opinions on certain issues, but are too geographically dispersed to make their voices heard under the current system - thousands of disaffected young/first-time voters spring immediately to mind.

We shouldn't be surprised that New Labour has signally failed to keep its promise of giving us a referendum on Jenkins' proposals in 2 full terms, let alone in its first term as originally promised. After all, the party now has a lot of "form", and Blair is a real pro when it comes to wriggling out of past committments, rewriting history and redefining words. I wouldn't expect any change of tack in the third term, either. They've got what they wanted.

I suppose it isn't surprising that the Tories haven't made a song and dance about the failure to provide an opportunity for electoral reform. Though perhaps in light of current performance - as opposed to in terms of their historic advantage under the current system - they should reconsider.

But what about the Lib Dems? Why haven't they drawn attention to the failure to meet this very serious commitment, which was, after all, made to some extent with them and their supporters in mind? And especially, why haven't they drawn attention to it right now when it is of such supreme relevance?

I must ask my MP, Norman Baker. I should say my current MP...

03 May 2005

Swings and Roundabouts

There's definitely a bit of a confluence happening at the moment.
A few months back I had my interest in Brian Eno rekindled when hearing him interviewed by Alan Moore (another sterling character) on Radio 4, this interest ably fortified by a mate lending me Eno & Fripp's The Equatorial Stars. This resulted in my taking a little journey into Eno's music whilst driving into/back from work; a journey that's very likely to continue.

This morning I heard Eno on the radio (yes, Radio 4 again, I'm afraid) publicising a new website, and what is his website promoting? Near enough exactly my blog's own election-time theme, for which I've found many echoes of my own:

Come Polling Day, I'd like to think that fear won't win out, especially an unreasonable fear of the Tories getting in "by the back door" if Labour voters switch to the Lib Dems, and that there is some scope for real change. Such as a new and vibrant opposition with a real (and consistent) vision.

I'd like to think that the lowest common denominators of conservatism, self-interest and yes, apathy, won't win out over our long-lasting love of individual freedom, eccentricity and the odd bit of complete bloody-mindedness.

I'd like to think that the state won't win this time.

02 May 2005

What Terrorists Want

The world has changed since September 11th 2001.
How much does that sound like stating the bleeding obvious?

But think - exactly how has it changed? It's not like terrorism was a new thing (hello, IRA). It's not even that global terrorist networks such as al-Qaeda (founded 1988) were a new thing. Neither were terrorist attacks on the home turf of Western nations (hello again, IRA). Suicide bombings of various kinds had been happening for years (hello, Hamas et al).

No, it was simply the most "effective"/murderous/high body-count (and for me to use Hollywood terminology is sick, but sadly apt) act of terrorism to date, and crucially, it happened on US soil. Which is part and parcel of it being such a devastating act of terrorism, as (a) the security services and security procedures weren't in any way up to scratch due to inexperience and/or a failure of the imagination and (b) huge iconic skyscrapers, visible for miles around, present a hugely tempting target.

So this is how the world changed - the US changed.
And now we're all caught up in Bush's "War Against Terrorism".

In the spirit of knowing our super-arch-enemy, it's worth asking:
What do Terrorists want?

Some like to adopt the cute no-brainer line of "They're just a bunch of madmen, jealous of our freedom, resentful of our way of life, who want to see us all dead." A beautiful approach that prevents the need for any further thought on the matter - and mine's a pint. But for those who are unconvinced that there could be quite so many complete nutters with so little grasp of reality, who nonetheless manage to coordinate sophisticated and well-targeted operations, let's carry on.

Well, Terrorists want Terror. Easy. They want to create conditions where a specified group of other people live in constant fear. This is stating the bleeding obvious once again, and is well-demonstrated by the way that al-Qaeda have managed the media, and that more recently, Iraqi "insurgents" (hang on, are these terrorists or not? do terrorists come from outside a country, insurgents from inside? D'oh, mine's a pint, let's treat them the same for now) have issued videos of decapitations over the Web etc. Excellent stuff - a world-wide web of fear.

Onward and downward:
Why do Terrorists want to make others live in fear?
For that we need to go back to the roots of the word terrorism , in the Reign of Terror in France (1789). Terrorism started out as an intentional product of an authoritarian state, a means of wiping out any foolish enough to put their heads above the parapet and speak against the state, of silencing their associates and of subjugating anyone else to the extent they would probably hardly dare think the wrong thoughts in case they came out at the wrong time. I'm reminded once again of George Orwell's 1984 and thoughtcrime. This reminds me in turn of what's happening at present, and I'm not the only one to draw the analogy (though I'd add that Bin Laden makes a good Goldstein, and I wouldn't be surprised if he never gets caught). Frightened people are easily manipulated.

Anyway, the point is that, although terrorists may actively want to kill a select few people, what they really want is to control a lot more people, to wit entire countries. The ideal terrorist act from that viewpoint is one where a minimal effort causes the maximum disruption to the lives of the maximum number of people for the maximum length of time. And one that leaves those people with a grave uncertainty about when and where the next outrage will occur.

This is exactly what September 11th has achieved.
It was the perfect terrorist act.
And while we allow our rulers to restrict our own freedoms and severely abuse (mostly other people's) basic human rights; while we allow pre-emptive wars, occupations and regime changes, all in the name of freedom; we perpetuate September 11th and further prove its perfection.

Please vote carefully.