The Telescreen is here

Thinking about getting a ‘smart’ Samsung TV? Think again.


Thanks to Hannes Sjoblad for the tweet.

Footnote: In Orwell’s 1984 there was a ‘telescreen’ in Winston’s apartment.

“Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork.”

Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?


That line from Alexander Pope came to mind time and time again last night as I watched a marvellous Storyville film about the short life and tragic death of Aaron Schwartz. At the end, I was left with the same mixture of anger and despair that I felt when news broke of his suicide, hounded to his death by a vindictive and disproportionate prosecution by the Feds for organising a massive download of scholarly articles from JSTOR.

I never met him, but I followed him through his writing and his work from the first time he surfaced on the Net. I vividly remember his blog posts about his reactions to Stanford, especially the way he tried to figure out why the world (and specifically that particular corner of it) was so weird and dysfunctional. And every day I use Markdown and RSS, two of the tools he helped to create. So like legions of others, I am in his debt.

I knew most of the story of his life. He and I shared a mutual friend (who was truly heartbroken by his death). What I hadn’t known — and the film revealed — was what he was like as a very young child. And the truth turns out to be that he was remarkable from the very beginning, one of the brightest, most engaging toddlers I’ve ever seen.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film was the way it managed to be deeply moving without being sentimental: that’s a hard balance to strike, but the film-makers pulled it off. In the end, as I said, it left one with a burning sense of injustice and anger. Two things stand out. The first is the hypocrisy of an administration (Obama’s) which vindictively pursues this idealistic young genius while failing to prosecute the criminals who wrecked the banking system. And secondly there is the thought that the real significance of Aaron’s treatment is that it heralds a future in which the established order will do whatever it takes to suppress uses of the Internet that challenge it. Aaron was, after all, well on his way to becoming a powerful political activist.

Mad Max rides again

As I was saying, now is the time to keep our heads. Max Hastings, alas, has lost his:

Our principal weapons against terrorists are not tanks, Typhoon fighter jets or warships, but instead intelligence officers using electronic surveillance.

Much cant has been peddled recently about the supposed threat to liberty posed by government eavesdropping on our lives.

Such people as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Edward Snowden (the former U.S. National Security Agency contractor turned treacherous fugitive), who have broadcast American and British secrets wholesale, are celebrated as heroes by some people who should know better, many of them writing for the Guardian or broadcasting for the BBC.

In truth, Assange and Snowden have damaged the security of each and every one of us, by alerting the jihadis and Al Qaeda, our mortal enemies, to the scale and reach of electronic eavesdropping.

Eh? As Caspar Bowden tweeted, “culprits of Paris, Woolwich, Boston not just all known to police, already jailed/ wiretapped for terrorism, or failed double-agent recruits”. So where does Snowden come into this? Answer: nowhere.

Ye olde reality distortion fields

The strangest thing about Downton Abbey, the reality distortion field masquerading as costume drama, is not that it has been captivating British audiences — for the Brits are congenitally susceptible to this kind of class-ridden crap — but that it is apparently a big hit in the US, which supposedly is a more egalitarian, less deferential society.

Also interesting is the coincidence that — as Thomas Piketty has shown — levels of inequality in the US are now approaching what they were in Britain when Downton Abbey was in its heyday. Wonder how many of those addled American Downton addicts realise that?

Imbecility rules ok?

Appearances notwithstanding, we are not governed by imbeciles. Our problem is that we are governed by unscrupulous politicians who see imbecility as the way to the voter’s heart. Step forward Theresa May, the current Miss Whiplash of the Tory front bench, who wants a solemn commitment in the next Tory Manifesto to expel all foreign graduate students after they graduate and make them apply from abroad for visas to work in the UK. Yes, you read that correctly. She wants to force bright young foreigners, who come to do research degrees in the UK because we have some great universities, to leave the moment they become available for work in our knowledge-based industries.

Here’s how James Dyson, the entrepreneur and inventor puts it:

Train ’em up. Kick ’em out. It’s a bit shortsighted, isn’t it? A short-term vote winner that leads to long-term economic decline. Of course the government needs to be seen to be “doing something”. But postgraduate research in particular leads to exportable, patentable technology. Binning foreign postgraduates is, I suppose, a quick fix. But quick fixes don’t build long-term futures. And that’s exactly what many researchers are doing.

Bright sparks are drawn to the UK for good reason – our universities are among the best in the world. Particularly for science and engineering. Yet the Home Office wants to say cheerio to these sharp minds as soon as their mortarboards land on college lawns. The moment research is finished students are forced back to their homelands, from where the home secretary is happy to allow them to apply for jobs in Britain. Not exactly motivating. Not exactly practical. This is an abrupt departure from an equally unworkable idea that after their research they have two months to be employed, otherwise they are ejected. No wonder fewer than 10% bother to try to stay.

Our borders must remain open to the world’s best. Give them our knowledge, allow them to develop their own and permit them to apply it on our shores. Their ideas and inventiveness will create technology to export around the world.

The interesting question, of course, is why Miss Whiplash thinks that her daft policy idea will be a vote-winner in a closely-fought election? The logical inference is that she thinks that voters are imbeciles. In which case she is following in the footsteps of one of her heroes, Winston Churchill, who famously observed that “the best argument against democracy is five minutes’ conversation with the average voter”.


How the unthinkable becomes thinkable

From the Christmas Edition of the New Yorker:

It’s hard to describe it as a positive development when a branch of the federal government releases a four-hundred-and-ninety-nine-page report that explains, in meticulous detail, how unthinkable cruelty became official U.S. policy. But last Tuesday, in releasing the long-awaited Senate Select Intelligence Committee report on the C.I.A.’s interrogation-and-detention program, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee chairman, proved that Congress can still perform its most basic Madisonian function of providing a check on executive-branch abuse, and that is reason for gratitude.


The report also demonstrates that the agency misrepresented nearly every aspect of its program to the Bush Administration, which authorized it, to the members of Congress charged with overseeing it, and to the public, which was led to believe that whatever the C.I.A. was doing was vital for national security and did not involve torture. Instead, the report shows, in all twenty cases most widely cited by the C.I.A. as evidence that abusive interrogation methods were necessary, the same information could have been obtained, and frequently was obtained, through non-coercive methods. Further, the interrogations often produced false information, ensnaring innocent people, sometimes with tragic results.

Other documents illustrate how the agency misled. In June of 2003, the Vice-President’s counsel asked the C.I.A’.s general counsel if the agency was videotaping its waterboarding sessions. His answer was no. That was technically true, since it was not videotaping them at the time. But it had done so previously, and it had the tapes. The C.I.A. used the same evasion on Senate overseers. A day after a senator proposed a commission to look into detainee matters, the tapes were destroyed. Similar deceptions on many levels are so rife in the report that a reader can’t help but wonder if agency officials didn’t simply regard their cloak of state secrecy as a license to circumvent accountability.

So, will anything change?

It remains to be seen, though, whether the report will spur lasting reform. Darius Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College and an expert on torture regimes, doubts that it will. For one thing, despite McCain’s testimony, torture is becoming just another partisan issue. This wasn’t always the case—it was Ronald Reagan who signed the U.N. Convention Against Torture, in 1988. But polls show both a growing acceptance of the practice and a widening divide along party lines. “It’s becoming a lot like the death penalty,” Rejali said.

All of which brings me to our current ‘debate’ (such as it is) about online surveillance. It’s interesting to see how affronted contemporary officials and government ministers become at any suggestion that the agencies are not behaving ethically or even legally. The response is to assert indignantly that such behaviour is unthinkable and that it is outrageous even to hint that some officials might behave badly.

Which makes me wonder if all these righteous protesters are either in denial or suffering from a bad case of collective amnesia. It’s not so long ago, for example, that the senior ranks of MI6 harboured a nest of Soviet spies. And I can’t think of a public or semi-public agency in recent years — the BBC, the Metropolitan Police, the Press Complaints Commission, the South Yorkshire police force, the Care Quality Commission), the Catholic church and MPs to name just seven — that has not done things or condoned behaviour that, when exposed, has been deemed unthinkable, unethical or incompetent.

Given what we now know about the recent history of our institutions, it seems statistically improbable that analogous malefaction is not going on in their contemporary equivalents. At any rate, it seems to me to be the most rational default assumption. Why should we believe any assurances from public or corporate spokespersons any more?

The Afghan shambles, and what it means

One of the astonishing things about democracies is the way in which those in government are allowed to get away with talking nonsense, especially if that nonsense involves ‘national security’, ‘defence’ or war. It was obvious to the meanest intelligence that the British adventure in Afghanistan made no sense, and all that ministerial guff about having British boots on the ground in that benighted land making the streets of Britain safer was pure baloney. And yet ministers from the PM down continued solemnly to intone it, and journalists reported it without much in the way of critical comment.

And now we’re ‘out’ of Afghanistan with nothing to show for it except humiliation, death, injury and humiliation.

Will Hutton has a good column about this in Sunday’s Observer. Excerpt:

None of the multiple and varying objectives set by three prime ministers and six defence secretaries through our engagement in Helmand province over eight years has been met, yet cumulatively it has cost at least £40bn. The bravery of British soldiers cannot be doubted: 453 have died; 247 have had limbs amputated; 2,600 have been wounded. Tragically, many uncounted thousands of Afghans have been killed; too few of them were fighters enlisted by the Taliban.

There is no improved government in Helmand. There has been no hoped-for economic reconstruction: heroin production is higher than it was. The violence between tribes, families and warlords is more entrenched. Helmand is more of a recruiting sergeant for terrorism and jihadism than it was; there have been no security gains. The central government in Kabul is more rather than less threatened. If one aim was to make the British homeland safer by victory in southern Afghanistan – a fantastical claim of last resort – Britain is now less safe.

More widely, our failure in Helmand, following on from the disaster in Basra where our forces were beaten back to the airbase outside the city and only the intervention of the US army allowed an orderly exit, has led to America’s profound re-evaluation of our usefulness as an ally. Tony Blair’s key aims for first invading Iraq to quest for nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and then pivoting into Afghanistan was to prove to the US that we were stalwart allies, consolidate the “special relationship” and so maintain Britain’s standing as a co-upholder, if junior partner, of the world order. In this, he was solidly supported by the “strategists” in the Ministry of Defence and leading generals anxious to defend their budgets.

All that has been completely dashed. Frank Ledwidge in his passionate and revelatory book ‘Investment in Blood’ (the source of the figures above) quotes former vice chief of staff of the US army General Jack Keane speaking at a conference at Sandhurst in late 2013 about the twin debacles of Basra and Helmand: “Gentleman, you let us down; you let us down badly.” Ledwidge continues, having spoken to many senior American military leaders: “This is a common view among senior American soldiers.” The US commander in Afghanistan, General Dan K McNeill, is uncompromising, cited by Jack Fairweather in his no less astounding ‘The Good War': the British “made a mess of things in Helmand”. Afghanistan has left the special relationship in tatters.

Interesting also to hear soldiers who have served in Afghanistan talk about it. It’s clear that they yearn for a convincing story that would justify the death and mutilation of their comrades. But no such story is forthcoming, for the simple reason that none exists.

Justice by PowerPoint

Did you know that lawyers in US courts are allowed to use PowerPoint in making their arguments? Neither did I, until I read this:

Perhaps the most common misuse of what some legal scholars call “visual advocacy” is the emblazoning of the word “Guilty” across a defendant’s photo. Almost always the letters are red—the “color of blood and the color used to denote losses,” as one court wrote. Two months ago the Court of Appeals of Missouri ruled in a case where the prosecution, in closing argument, presented the following slide:


The defendant, Chadwick Leland Walter, had been convicted of attempting to manufacture methamphetamine and of maintaining a public nuisance. The photo used for the slide was Walter’s booking photo—hence, the orange jail clothing. As the appeals court noted, the state could not force Walter to appear before a jury in jail garb, because that could undermine the presumption of innocence. But the prosecution’s use of the booking photo had the same effect.

Sanitising history

I can’t stand Downton Abbey, the current opiate of the couch-potato class. Neither can Polly Toynbee:

To control history by rewriting the past subtly influences present attitudes too: every dictator knows that. Downton rewrites class division, rendering it anodyne, civilised and quaintly cosy. Those upstairs do nothing unspeakably horrible to their servants, while those downstairs are remarkably content with their lot. The brutality of servants’ lives is bleached out, the brutishness of upper-class attitudes, manners and behaviour to their servants ironed away. There are token glimpses of resentments between the classes, but the main characters are nice, in a nice world. The truth would be impossible without turning the Earl of Grantham and his family, the Crawleys, into villains, with the below-stairs denizens their wretched victims – a very different story, and not one Julian Fellowes would ever write.

Much attention is paid to detail. Place settings are measured to perfection with a ruler, the footmen’s buttons absolutely correct, yet everything important is absolutely wrong. Start with the labour: what we see is pleasant work by well-manicured maids in fetching uniforms, healthy and wholesome, doing a little feather-dusting of the chandeliers, some silver polishing, some eavesdropping while serving at table and some pleasant cooking with Mrs Patmore. There is even time for scullery maid Daisy to sit at the kitchen table improving herself with home education. In Downton the hierarchical bullying of servants by one another is replaced by the housekeeper and butler’s benevolent paternalism: what a nice place to work.

What we never see is bedraggled drudges rising in freezing shared attics at 5.30am; slopping out chamber pots, heaving coal, black-leading grates, hauling cans of hot water with hands already made raw by chilblains and caustic soda…

Right on. Terrific rant.