Monday, October 31, 2011 

It's a gas.

One of the classic ploys in politics when things are going wrong is to re-announce measures that have already been knocking around for some time. Hence heralded today was the last round in the dishing out of funds from the regional growth fund, although as Labour's Chuka Umunna pointed out the money allocated was still a real terms cut due to the scrapping of the (arguably ineffective) regional development agencies, with their budget for a year spread out instead over three.

Still, it is at least nice to see David Cameron announcing infrastructure projects, even if the two approved power stations had long been mooted. Shame then that when Dave additionally says there's "room for optimism" over the economy both the OECD and ILO seem to disagree. Tomorrow, happily, sees the announcement of the growth figures for July to September, providing an insight into just who's right. My metaphorical money's on the latter two organisations.

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Saturday, October 29, 2011 

So lonely.

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Friday, October 28, 2011 

This is a dead parrot!

The Graun's editorial on the changes to the rules of royal succession says it "would be churlish not to welcome the news". Would it? What exactly is the point of making an institution which is discriminatory by its very nature ever so slightly less discriminatory? Whether you want to compare it with putting lipstick on a pig or nailing a dead parrot to its perch, it's an absolutely nonsensical gesture. Anything that helps to prop up something, however slightly, that should just be abolished is a waste of everyone's time.

(Interestingly, I wrote a far angrier rant against this change back in '08 which I'd completely forgotten about.)

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Thursday, October 27, 2011 

Clarke should resign and truly break the cycle.

The usual tendency in politics is to offer much before you win power, then to do very little, if not the direct opposite to that you promised once you're in it. Ken Clarke and the Conservatives seemed for a time to have got it backwards. Despite their manifesto making the usual noises on law and order, with mandatory jail sentences for those committing a crime using a knife and a pledge to "redevelop" the prison estate to ensure early release wasn't necessary again, Clarke was swiftly given the authority to almost completely ignore the hardback blue tome. Helped along by the cuts being made to his budget, Clarke quickly proposed measures that would have resulted in a drop in the prison population of around 6,500, while there were to be further sentence discounts for early guilty pleas.

As quickly as this surprise was sprung on us, it's been taken away. Clarke, it has to be said, didn't make things easy for himself. With the tabloids always likely to oppose even the slightest changes to a system they have had a major part in imposing upon us, he had to watch his every step and take a softly softly approach. His unfortunate performance during a 5 Live interview presented them with a massive open goal, which they took advantage of gleefully. Since then we've had the riots, and with so much else the government is doing becoming increasingly unpopular, Ken has been fighting a losing battle. First went his sentence discount plans and call for more community sentences, and now his opposition to mandatory terms with the exception of those convicted of murder has also been overruled.

Whether this has any connection to the battle between Clarke and Theresa May over that darn cat, or if indeed the apparent animosity had surfaced before then is difficult to tell. May has never really come across as a populist, so maybe it's simple cynicism: doing what the tabloids want in an attempt to get them to back off elsewhere. Certainly, Cameron could hardly have been comforted by the continual attacks from the Sun over his dropped promise on knife crime. To them, anyone carrying a knife is a savage, regardless of whether they're doing it out of fear or youthful stupidity, and so deserves to spend at least four months in prison. Rather than allowing a judge or magistrate to make their own decision based on the circumstances of each individual case, the government must intervene and take the matter out of their hands.

Clarke did at least fight his corner. Even on Tuesday he was arguing in front of the home affairs select committee that it would be a "bit of a leap for the British justice system" for the government to demand a court send a 13-year old first time offender to a secure home. Yesterday he was left to stand up in the Commons and announce that while he had managed to prevent that from happening, 16 and 17-year-olds would face a mandatory term should they use a knife or other offensive weapon to "threaten or endanger", which essentially means waving it around even if they have no intention of actually doing anything with it. The option of using restorative justice in such a case, or community service, something that might bring home to a young person both more effectively and cheaply the gravity of their foolishness is to be withheld. This is the exact kind of pseudo tough policy making that has failed us for the past 17 years.

Much the same is true, although less objectionably, of the proposed mandatory life term for those committing a second "most serious sexual or violent offence". Clarke himself said this would most likely only apply to those who commit two "probably near-murderous attacks" and only affect around 20 people a year, but this is much the same that was said about Labour's indeterminate public protection regime, with subsequently over 6,000 receiving them, many languishing in prison past their minimum term unable to access the courses necessary to prove they're no longer a risk. One thing to welcome is the abolition of IPPs, although this is also tempered by the proposed replacement, the extended determinate sentence. This looks to be the equivalent of a life sentence in all but name, with the difference being that parole can be applied for once two-thirds of the term has been served. Once released they will then remain on licence for up to 8 years, or 10 for the most serious offenders. One suspects this will shortly become the standard sentence for almost all "serious" offenders, putting extra pressure on the prison estate and then in turn probation (receiving heavy cuts) for possibly little overall benefit.

Apart from how these massive changes to current practice have been left to be inserted into the legal aid, sentencing and punishment bill as amendments at the very last minute, with no time for consultation, the most troubling thing for Clarke must be the effect they'll have on his actual prison reform programme. To be able to have any chance of reducing re-offending, prisoners must have access to the work, training and therapy programmes he's been proposing. This is next to impossible to provide when some prisons are forced through overcrowding to lock up prisoners for 23 hours a day. Without bringing the population down to a sustainable level, the whole cause looks lost.

When the Sun then asks where Clarke goes from here, with their suggestion being that his time is up, it's difficult to disagree even if it's for an entirely different reason to the one they set out. Why continue as justice secretary when he's clearly lost the support he initially had for thinking somewhat radically? He should resign now and let those truly responsible take the blame when the attempt to "break the cycle" miserably fails.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011 

Footballers! Put up with racism!

(h/t to both Tabloid Watch and Angry Mob.)

If nothing else, Steve Doughty displays an interesting thought process in his quite remarkable article for the Daily Mail's RightMinds blog (edited by Simon Heffer, who just so happens to be Enoch Powell's biographer). After a couple of weeks in which it's been claimed that Premier League footballers have racially abused each other, Doughty does the sensible thing and relates how massively things have improved even since the 70s and 80s. He writes about how "it has been a long hard road" for black footballers, as indeed it has. He even relates an anecdote about how a man in front of him and his elderly mother at Highbury (before Arsenal moved to the Grove) racially abused Kanu, afterwards turning round and apologising for letting such an unacceptable sentiment just "slip" out.

An indication to how after all this there's a bizarre conclusion is in the aside about John Terry, accused of calling Anton Ferdinand a "fucking black cunt". Terry's explanation is that he was in fact saying to Ferdinand, after a confused encounter, that he didn't say he was a "fucking black cunt", although it seems Ferdinand hadn't realised in the first place Terry had said anything of the sort. According to Doughty, that Terry might have said such things is not that surprising "given Terry's general level of conduct". I'm not a Chelsea fan, but the newspapers have for a while now seemed to have it in for Terry: tales of him urinating at the bar in a club, showing businessmen round Stamford Bridge for a fee, the outrageous entrapment of his father and finally the more than possibly untrue story of his affair with Vanessa Perroncel would rile anyone. Even if all of these accusations were true, it's fatuous to claim that they make the allegations of racism more likely.

Having then set out how much worse things used to be, and how there are also "worse things to complain about", Doughty's advice to any players racially abused is to "put up with it and get on with the game". Yes, Patrice Evra, you should put up with opposing players repeatedly calling you a "nigger"; after all, those who blazed a trail before you had to. As for you Anton, well, you didn't even know about Terry's comments before you heard about it later, so what's the problem? Of all the absurd arguments to make, this has to be one of the most ridiculous. The sheer fact that it was fans who were so vociferous about Terry's alleged comments gives the lie to the idea that players, knowing the progress that has been achieved, should now keep quiet. The obvious truism is that if the players themselves are treating each other in such a way, then it hardly sets an example to the fans. All the more reason for players not to tolerate it.

Understandably, the Show Racism the Red Card campaign is "appalled". Leroy Resenior, who works for the campaign, put it far more brutally when asked about the situation in general:

My son is a footballer and he has not experienced racism on the pitch, but he is of mixed heritage. Those who say that black players have to toughen up haven't got a clue and shouldn't be the ones our kids listen to.


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Tuesday, October 25, 2011 

Everybody's talking 'bout the bad old days.

There are now it seems three, rather than two certain things in life: death, taxes, and that the Conservative party will find a way to have a fight with itself over Europe. It can't help but conjure up memories of political times past. Here with we are after all with rising unemployment, a government seemingly powerless to do anything about the state of the economy, or rather, completely unwilling to, crime increasing, riots, falling living standards, ministers resigning in disgrace and a party in power that would rather talk about anything other than the real problems facing it. Yes, whether you want to look back to the 80s or those dismal few years at the beginning of the 90s, it's impossible to ignore the similarities.

These comparisons can obviously only go so far. Unlike John Major, David Cameron was not within a couple of votes of losing his job last night. He also helms a party that far from flat-lining in the polls continues to trail Labour by only a few points, still maintaining a solid if finally beginning to decline lead on the economy. Last night's rebellion was, in these terms, merely Cameron's first parliamentary encounter with those backbenchers who seem to be under the illusion that if only Britain could shake itself free from the shackles of European red tape and regulation we would in no time be, if not ruling the waves again, then at least doing nicely for ourselves like Norway.

Cameron's problem is that like the Tory leaders who preceded him he encouraged much of this sentiment, repeatedly lambasting Labour over their dropped promise to hold a referendum on the European constitution. The difference is that unlike Hague, IDS and Howard, he then went one step further and in the Tory manifesto promised that upon any proposed further transfer of power to Brussels, a referendum would be held first. This looked to be a clever buying off tactic initially: not only would it make up for deciding not to reopen the sore over the constitution should the Tories come to power, but it would also strengthen the British bargaining position. With it looking distinctly unlikely that any new legislation resulting in power flowing to Europe was imminent, it also seemed it would never have to be put into practice. Cameron and his advisers didn't however bargain on needing to go into coalition; what should have kicked the issue into the long grass has instead simply resulted in the Eurosceptics pushing for more, angered and bitter over the Lib Dem "brake" on Conservative policy.

The petition on a referendum was then just a happy coincidence, as it's been clear for a while that some kind of issue would be found on which the Tory right could make a stand. That it has been on Europe, and that Downing Street has supposedly been both "heavy-handed" and "weak" has (to go Shaun of a Dead for a moment) exacerbated things. Cynical as it is, the argument from Cameron and Hague is absolutely right: this is an insane moment to call a referendum on membership of the EU, at the exact time that more than anything the Eurozone needs support and we, in turn, need the trade the current system guarantees and will guarantee. A referendum on EU membership at some point is necessary, if only to clear the air on this most stultifying of issues. Moreover, despite the polls currently suggesting that a vote would result in us leaving the union, we should remember that there was a similar majority in favour of AV to begin with. A hopeless yes campaign aside, it's apparent that unless there's a compelling case for a change to the status quo then it will end up being rejected. Apart from the monomaniacs, little Englanders and tabloids, there are few that want to leave the EU who don't already oppose it on an almost atavistic level.

More immediately worrying for Cameron is that this further threatens the already tenuous detoxification programme he and George Osborne (snigger) have attempted to lead. Among those who continue to pay attention when such a terminally boring topic has returned to politics (and that's as much the reason why the public have always hated the splits in the Tory party when it's over something so seemingly banal and dry) will only see already pompous blowhards be even more pompous and self-regarding than usual. Voters do take notice when someone resigns over a principle, but not if it's over having a referendum right now and it's someone they've never heard of; making such a ridiculous song and dance over it as some in the party did yesterday just results in a rolling of eyes. Ridiculous also perfectly describes Jacob Rees-Mogg, who seems determined to bring down his party from within by just being himself. Likewise, other members of the Tory right, whether they be Andrea Leadsom with her extraordinary call for sex education in schools to be opt-in rather than opt-out, Priti Patel's eyes through the fingers performance on Question Time, or Liam Fox's close to being unbelievable arrogance in his resignation statement, are not going to do anything to help a party increasingly seen as out of touch.

Gaddafi's death certainly helped to distract attention away from that particular unpleasantness. Using the passive once again, Fox accepted it was a mistake for "distinctions to be blurred", while the ministerial code had been found to "have been breached", not had been breached. There was no apology, just acceptance; and then the media, for daring to investigate those breaches, was assaulted and accused of hounding people when they almost certainly hadn't. His wife had dealt with the problems brought on by her husband with her usual grace and dignity, while he just continued to act as he always has, with bumptiousness and pathetic self-indulgence. If a Labour politician had acted in such a fashion, especially during Gordon Brown's time, then the right-wing press would have gone ballistic.

Credit then to Nick Clegg for speaking up on the "tilting at windmills" of the Tories. As Reuben points out, the real reason behind the split is partially down to the majority of large businesses, while not being overwhelmingly happy at the situation, favouring the security which the EU brings, even if that isn't the situation at the moment. They're very partial to the idea of repatriating the worker friendly social and employment laws membership of the EU has required implementing, but not a complete divorce as increasing numbers of Tory MPs want, and indeed would be the main campaign aim should a referendum take place. Even this though, happily, is unlikely to happen, not least because for the moment the Lib Dems are blocking any attempt at a renegotiation.

This is what Labour and Ed Miliband should be pointing this out, time and again: that the real reason the Tories are currently so opposed to the EU is not due to the open market it provides or the policy of open borders that led to the immigration wave after the accession states joined, nor the corruption, scandal of the budget, bureaucracy or loss of power from parliament, but because of such outrageous legislation as the Working Time directive. One thing is clear: the fabric holding together the coalition is starting to fray.

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Monday, October 24, 2011 

The geniuses behind UK Uncut return to the fore.

It's difficult to know when it comes to OccupyLSX (an entirely misleading descriptive term/hash tag, seeing as the group miserably failed to occupy the stock exchange) which side is being the more disingenuous. The obvious problem for the demonstrators is that having been prevented from taking control of an actual target identified with the 1%, they're now occupying the square in front of what is possibly Britain's best loved building. This immediately diminishes the potency of their message, which in any case is disjointed and vague on what exactly should be done to redress the balance in favour of the 99% (and really, while the American government might be for the 1%, here let's be honest and go for either 5% or 10%). Combined with the image in the media of their being fully responsible for the closure of St. Paul's, they're now almost certainly doing more harm than good by staying there. Highly interconnected as the group is with the utterly cretinous strategists of UK Uncut, rather than dismantling the camp and moving to their new site fully in Finsbury Square which would now make the best sense, they appear determined to stay, all because they apparently failed to have a proper back-up plan.

This said, and as much as I agree with Simon Jenkins in that this whole tactic of occupying is facile when direct, proper action is now the only message that properly gets across, it's equally laughable that the Occupy camp is such a health and safety risk that the cathedral must be closed, except of course for the few clergy who have thrown caution to the wind. If they don't want a bunch of incoherent radicals likely to be embarrassed in a few years at themselves semi-permanently on their doorstep, then say so. It's a perfectly reasonable position to take. St, Paul's, regardless of its location in the City, is hardly Threadneedle Street. Now if only both sides could stop being so pathetic, an accord could quite possibly be reached.

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Saturday, October 22, 2011 


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Friday, October 21, 2011 

Stay classy Dominic Mohan!

Yes, I'm sure that's exactly what the men who pulled him out of the sewer were avenging, you bloodthirsty twats.

(Special mention must also go to the equally classy David Cameron, who in his brief appearance yesterday repeated the exact same litany first and only then mentioned the 40-year tyranny the Libyans endured. Still, it was all about protecting civilians and not long in coming revenge, wasn't it?)

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Thursday, October 20, 2011 

An oddly appropriate end.

There is much about the death of Gaddafi that seems oddly appropriate, both in terms of his own idiosyncratic, eccentric, brutal rule and the similarly fantastical, double-speak ridden coalition that came together to overthrow him. To the very last this incomprehensible man apparently carried with him a gold-plated gun, the kind of utterly debauched kitsch that only fictional gangsters and madmen along with probably quite real oligarchs and footballers would find aesthetically pleasing. It doesn't seem that he used it, or if he did the NTC certainly hasn't mentioned it; it would after all rather collide with the image of pulling him from out of a sewerage system like a rat, the same terms in which he repeatedly denounced those who had risen up against him, if he'd gone down fighting.

Instead he was given much the same treatment as Mussolini, although he has (so far) been spared the indignity of being hung upside down from a meathook. Certainly the account given by the NTC of his capture and subsequent death is confused and contradicted, not least by the various gruesome videos showing him alive and then later dead. If he did die in an ambulance as they're claiming, it's strange that there's footage of him alive being pulled off a truck, and then seemingly back on the same truck most definitely dead. Where the footage of him on the ground, also dead, comes in the chain remains to be seen. It's certainly possible that he died of his injuries shortly after being pulled off the truck, perhaps even in an ambulance, but it's hardly surprising there's suspicions that he was administered the coup de grace, with his body then being displayed and driven through the streets of Sirte. If that was what happened though it's difficult to believe there isn't video footage of the execution yet to emerge, seeing as everything else seems to have been filmed.

Like with so much else in this exasperating war, NATO had their own ignominious role to play. Gaddafi's convoy was apparently struck from the air, although the French and Americans are now squabbling over who exactly it was that so successfully protected any civilians playing chicken along the road from Sirte from an early grave. If you ever wanted a better indication of how rather than being a "liberal intervention" this was instead another war for regime change with at least some noble intentions then it's been provided by how today's strike will apparently be the last action of the campaign. Ever since the fall of Tripoli the only civilians in need of protection were those unfortunate enough to be living in the areas the last remaining loyalists fell back to, in Sirtre and Bani Walid respectively. Instead, NATO connived with the NTC forces to reduce Gaddafi's home town to rubble, regardless of the entirely innocent civilians living there. Rather than suggesting alternatives to their allies, they actively encouraged the Free Libya Forces to use the exact same artillery fire that Gaddafi's men showered Misrata with, to deadly and horrific effect. With Gaddafi dead, NATO's work is finished. If indeed he had managed to escape from Sirtre, it seems likely the mission would have continued until his death, such was the determination to continue to "protect civilians".

For the lessons of Iraq most certainly have been learned. Then the United States and the UK tried to pass a UN resolution authorising all necessary means in order to disarm the country of weapons of mass destruction by force. They failed because it was obvious the inspections had not been given enough time to succeed and as it was equally apparent regime change was the real motivation. This time, led by the UK and France, a resolution was sought that would put in place a no-fly zone and authorise all necessary means to protect civilians, while at the same time calling for an immediate ceasefire and negotiations. With a massacre in Benghazi otherwise looking imminent, it's not surprising that China and Russia fell into line despite their misgivings. UNSC Resolution 1973 has instead been used to justify absolutely anything NATO thought was appropriate to "protect civilians", essentially meaning the end of Gaddafi's government. Negotiations were rejected out of hand by the NTC, while any attempts to reach a ceasefire were negligible. The supposed "responsibility to protect" has been perhaps permanently sullied by this blatant deception. It's certainly ensured that Russia and China have blocked any attempts to pass sanction on Syria.

If there's been any regrets at this subterfuge, even if in the long run it may well turn out to be justified, then none have been expressed. David Cameron in the Commons on Wednesday returned once again to the "dodgy dossier" when listing a litany of abuses by the past government, at the same time as he's been presiding over a conflict based around very similar deceptions and lies. This though has been a good war, for the simple reason that not a single serviceman connected with NATO has perished, although this seems more by luck than judgement. The entire 8-month conflict has in the end turned out to have gone well for our politicians: so much could have gone wrong, from Gaddafi's men over-running Benghazi before operations began, to an intractable stalemate emerging, through to the fight for Tripoli turning into a complete bloodbath. A stalemate for a long time seemed to have prevailed, with the TNC's fighters being disorganised, almost suicidal in their tactics; even in Sirte they seemed determined to kill as many on their own side as they did loyalists. It's still not entirely clear how the fall of Tripoli came about, with accounts persisting about special forces from Qatar being heavily involved, having already provided weapons.

Equally unclear is how many Libyans have lost their lives. Prior to the intervention anywhere between 1,000 and 6,000 were thought to have died; now the NTC suggests up to 40,000 have. Like in Iraq, no one seems to have been bothered enough to determine how many civilians were "protected" to death by NATO air-strikes. In Syria, where the repression if anything has been worse than it was in Libya prior to the intervention, around 3,000 are thought to have been killed. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, where the dictators stepped down but left behind their states, in Libya Gaddafi essentially was the state, leaving the NTC to restart from scratch. The difficulty of doing so will only be exacerbated by the tensions now increasing between the different factions of the rebels. Similarly, while there are always likely to be scores settled, the reports of torture and arrests are disturbing. The path to democracy for the country looks strewn with hazards.

Quite where this leaves any future intention to intervene is difficult to tell. Certainly, the other permanent UN security council members aren't going to fall for this "responsibility to protect" nonsense again unless genocide actually is happening. It's also even more abundantly clear to every dictator and authoritarian regime around the world that giving up your weapons of mass destruction is an act of lunacy. As Alex Massie says, it also instructs them that the best way to put down an uprising is brutal repression from the very beginning, before anyone has even the possibility of acting. At the same time, Flying Rodent more than has a point (as he has had throughout) when he suggests that not even a complete clusterfuck in Libya would stop our rulers from acting in the same way again. There was every possibility of Libya turning out as badly as Iraq, yet they went ahead anyway. This wasn't so much political courage as pure, unthinking arrogance, tempered only by how it was at least with some humanitarian instinct at its heart.

All this said, the true end of a dictatorial regime is always to be welcomed. The pure joy seen across Libya today at the knowledge that the person who terrorised them for so long has been removed entirely from the scene is something it can only be hoped is repeated with time in Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Hopefully without the need for ourselves to bomb their leaders' departing convoys first.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011 

Slamming the door shut.

It was a long time ago now, but back in the mists of time (around 2002 if we must be specific) former spooks were rather complimentary about, err, Spooks. Not because of its realism, obviously, as in only the second episode one of the agents was dipped in a deep fat fryer, but more for showing the security services in a highly flattering light. After all, the real services had long been associated in the public imagination if at all by the grey men now also back on our screens in the form of George Smiley, or alternatively by Harold Wilson as the kind of paranoid lunatics who wanted to know where members of the public had bought subversive literature such as the Daily Mirror from. Here instead were young, dynamic attractive self-sacrificing individuals with consciences, even if they did manage to save the world every week all but single-handedly.

Strangely, they're now rather more sniffy about it as the show reaches its climax. This is especially curious as the series as it's continued through the seasons has stayed more or less the same: almost everyone working for MI5 is a saintly lefty, head honcho Harry especially, most recently denouncing oligarchs profiting from earthquakes while still protecting them from murderous anarchists. Yes, he took part in unpleasantness during the Cold War era, but so did everyone. In the current age of rendition and torture, MI5 is spotless; it's everyone else that's dirty, whether it's the CIA, Mossad or the Russians, and they're all out to deceive, even directly target the plucky Brits desperately trying to do the right thing.

Perhaps it's the fact this is such an inversion of reality that so winds up those formerly in the service. There certainly wouldn't be any need for the Gibson inquiry if MI5 and 6, admittedly with the full support of the last government, hadn't at the very least connived in the mistreatment and deportation of "terrorist suspects" to various hellholes across the globe. Incredibly distressing for them and the government was that these ingrates, having been graciously allowed to return to this beacon of human rights and open justice, were now demanding to see the documentation which consigned them there in the first place. Having fought tooth and nail to prevent the "seven paragraphs" from being released, under the ostensible reason that to do so would breach the "control" principle, whereby the foreign intelligence service that provided the information in the first place has full control over what happens to it afterwards, even though an American court had already put far more damning information concerning the torture of Binyam Mohamed into the public domain, this was a far worse threat. Annoying the Americans slightly is one thing, but allowing massive amounts of highly incriminating information, likely to be read completely out of context, to become public was simply unconscionable.

The government green paper published today, titled Justice and Security, is the long in coming attempt to slam the door towards something resembling transparency shut forever. Having rejected the orthodox consensus on responding to scandal that involves complete openness (or as much openness as can be reasonably expected from organisations which must work in secret) about what went wrong so that the mistakes can be learned from, with the Gibson inquiry neutered and the interested parties boycotting it as a result, it's no surprise that it recommends an expansion of the special advocate system already in place for the soon to be abolished control order system and used in the special immigration appeals process. Yes, the thoroughly unsatisfactory system where someone on a control order can't even know what it is exactly they're accused of doing is thought to be good enough to put in place when someone alleging wrongdoing seeks redress through the courts. While no one has suggested that the advocates are patsies and seem to have performed at least a decent job so far, that the claimants themselves cannot have personal access to material concerning them, or indeed, concerning their mistreatment is about as far from open justice as it is possible to imagine.

Equally, no one is suggesting that this isn't a highly difficult area. The supreme court when considering the appeal from the government against the ruling for the freed Guantanamo men agonised over it, before concluding that this was an area where justice must be seen to be done but which parliament should have the final say on. If this is going to happen, then we should be damn sure that such abuses aren't going to happen again in the future. Rather than take the calls for truly independent oversight into the security services seriously, all the green paper proposes is a derisory, ever so slight reform of the intelligence and security committee, the same parliamentary committee that produced the now even more laughable than it was then report on rendition. All it suggests is making it a statutory committee of parliament, as well as beefing up their power to demand material from the security services, who even then will still be able to persuade the security of state to veto any especially onerous requests. It does consult on the possibility of introducing an inspector-general, a layer of oversight used in other countries, but it seems the least likely option rather than the most.

Despite all the fantastic investigative journalism produced by numerous journalists that exposed first the rendition program and then British complicity in it, it was the Binyam Mohamed court case that meant an official inquiry, no matter how crippled, had to be established. Without the release of those seven paragraphs the legal action and settlement would not have followed. Under these proposals it's clear that such information would not in the future become public. This is perfect for organisations desperate for everyone to focus on the unmitigated good they do, and their tireless work to protect us from the few out there who wish us harm, but an injustice when they get things so terribly wrong. As the Guardian argues, none of this would have been necessary had MI5 and 6 not followed the CIA down the road to hell. Cover-ups in turn only make suspicions and grievances worse. A path needs to be found whereby justice must be seen to be done, with those seeking redress able to access the information held on them, while still protecting national security. The proposed system is as much a mockery of the values the services pledge to uphold as Spooks is of the deeply boring, conflicted and overall thoroughly human men and women trying to keep us safe.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011 

More blurring of the lines.

To call Gus O'Donnell's report into the allegations against Liam Fox (its actual title no less) a slight document is to put it very kindly. At all of ten pages and around 2,700 words it's shorter than some of my more extravagant posts on here, which it has to be said probably says more about me than it does about the cabinet secretary. It does those raise the question of just why it took him more than a week to produce it, and also why it was repeatedly delayed today; it certainly wasn't for proof-reading, as wags have had it, as it contains at least a couple of errors often found on the average quickly thrashed out blog entry. Whether it was, as Craig Murray suggests, down to No 10 demanding certain paragraphs or comments be excised we'll most likely never know.

Those 10 pages do however contain damning criticism of our dear friend Foxy and in turn his dear friend Werritty, albeit delivered in the finest mandarinese. As Fox himself was quick to trumpet, it does clear him of personally profiting from this friendship with Werritty, but then no one was seriously suggesting that this was a matter of immediate personal enrichment with Werritty as his fence. Fox in his statement also pointed to how O'Donnell decided there was no breach of national security, but he strangely overlooked how his disclosure of future foreign visits to his best mate "posed a degree of security risk" not only to Fox himself but also to the accompanying party of diplomats and civil servants. Still, they don't matter much, it was only a degree of risk, and Fox has accepted such disclosures were "not appropriate".

If O'Donnell's report was somewhat nobbled by Downing Street, then he at least deserves praise for the sheer manner of the skewering of Fox. He adopts the "blurring of the lines" half-apology first used by Fox himself and twists it into him repeatedly, you suspect with abundant glee at the absurdity of the formulation, as he and everyone else knows that this was no "blurring of the lines" on the Fox's behalf; it was entirely deliberate. Fox and up until now the Conservative party as a whole have tried to play this as a simple, relatively uninteresting affair involving a minister allowing his slightly clingy friend to tag along with him on meetings, ignoring completely that someone had to be paying for Werritty to gallivant around the world pretending to be an official adviser.

We already knew that Fox had directly solicited a donation from Jon Moulton for Werritty's company Pargav, which it seems was set-up to replace the Atlantic Bridge, Fox's forced to disband neo-con charity. O'Donnell reveals the other donors are names involved from the beginning, some of them also being contributors to Conservative party funds. Three have pro-Israel connections, although it's possible to stretch this too far: one of those named, Mick Davis, last year had the temerity to suggest that the current Israeli government "lacked a strategy on the peace process". Leaving aside that it's very clear that it does have a strategy on it, which is to make a Palestinian state impossible through constant delay, claiming not to have a partner and settlement building, he hardly strikes as having an Israel first mindset like Melanie Phillips.

They do however obviously want to know what their money is paying for. Giving money directly to the Tories is one thing; why fund Fox's pal unless he's doing something that civil servants either can't or won, with presumably end results. This is what O'Donnell is hinting at when he writes

The links between Dr Fox and Mr Werritty means that the donations given to Mr Werritty could at least be seen as giving rise to the perception of a conflict of interest.

With his remit preventing him from investigating or commenting any further, he has to leave it at that, while going on to say there is no evidence that Pargav sought to win contracts, something it was clearly not formed to do in any case, nor that Werritty lobbied Fox on behalf of the donors, something that he didn't have to do when Fox was in one instance in personal contact with one!

That Fox had then broken the ministerial code was obvious. What this report leaves completely unanswered and was always going to was what exactly Werritty's true role was, something that Fox doesn't want to talk about and neither does the Conservative party. Werritty, bless him, is apparently consulting the lawyers for his part. For instance, why is it that Werritty's most well documented engagements are with representatives of Israel and Sri Lanka, the latter of which Fox has had a long association with? Was he operating, as has been suggested, as a link in Fox's shadow foreign policy, aimed at giving more support, both moral and economical to two highly controversial foreign countries with poor human rights records? MI6 was so interested in what Werritty had been talking about that they debriefed him. Who else in government, other than the two junior defence ministers, knew about Werritty and when, especially the four who served on the Atlantic Bridge's advisory council? Why is there so little apparent interest and comment from within the party on exactly what Fox was up to when it so obviously seems to be at odds with official government policy?

The key difference between this and David Cameron's prescient feeling about lobbying is that lobbyists usually work to persuade a minister one way or the other over an issue that personally concerns them. Liam Fox was essentially employing a friend to represent his true interests in government in an unofficial capacity, funded by lobbyists who shared his values. The Liberal Democrats, perhaps worried about further antagonising the Tory right and the potential for Chris Huhne to be next, have barely said a word about the entire affair and this sordid conflict of interest. Without them raising their voices the chance of a full inquiry or even an expanded one into what Fox 'n' Werritty wanted and were doing is next to nil, even when it is so obviously vital that we get to the bottom of this covert operation at the very heart of the Ministry of Defence.

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Monday, October 17, 2011 

Blessed are the peacemakers.

Monday's talks will see peace mediators including Tony Blair's former chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, discuss the process with local politicians. The latter include both radical separatists close to Eta and the Basque branch of Zapatero's Socialist party. Rajoy's PP will not attend.

Yes, it'll make a nice change for Jonathan Powell to get back into peace mediation. He did after all have a crucial role in mediating between the two sides in Northern Ireland prior to the Good Friday agreement, as detailed in his book, Great Hatred Little Room. It's a record only slightly blotted by his subsequent role in advising Tony Blair to bomb the living fuck out of Iraq, a position still proud of back in 2007, even if he regretted it was justified on the grounds of Saddam having weapons of mass destruction rather being a nasty man. Indeed, he felt that Blair's five conditions for intervention set out in his famous Chicago speech could result in a more robust approach to countries such as Burma and Zimbabwe, both nations crying out for liberation via the bomb bay doors of British aircraft.

Still, it will at least result in a happy crossing of paths again with his former boss. Powell, like Blair, has interests in investment banking; now he too can claim to be pushing once again for peace having formerly involved himself in the waging of war. He might even be slightly better at it than Blair has been as head of the Quartet in Israel.

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Saturday, October 15, 2011 

Falling down.

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Friday, October 14, 2011 


And so Dr Liam Fox has resigned to spend less time with his best man. If you must step down, it's always a good idea to do it on Friday, suspicious as it is: by Monday the story's usually moved on. It also usually means that the individual has got wind of what's likely to be published on the Sunday, and considering where the scandal appears to be going, into the realms of Fox running a covert policy bought with American money, potentially even with foreign intelligence assets involved, it's shaping up to be the most serious instance of outside influence on a minister for quite some years.

No surprise then that both Fox and the entire Conservative party want to dress this up purely in the realms of Fox doing favours to a long time friend. Not a single Tory it seems is interested in just where the money came from for Werritty to accompany Fox on the many trips abroad, nor why Werritty was meeting up with him in so many exotic locations except apparently to offer moral support. Fox in his resignation letter simply repeats what he said last weekend, that he "mistakenly allowed the distinction between my personal interest and my government activities to become blurred". This if anything seems to be an attempt to deflect interest back onto the rumours and whispers surrounding the nature of his friendship with Werritty, which if not completely irrelevant is utterly inconsequential when compared to his role as part of his entourage.

Presuming we still receive Gus O'Donnell's report on the affair, which was framed narrowly along the lines of whether Werritty was organising meetings for Fox with private individuals in exchange for payment, it doesn't even begin to answer why civil servants didn't flag up this arrangement long ago. Once again it's the Guardian that's stepped into the breach, with other newspapers then following up Rupert Neate's initial digging. Additionally, only in the world of politics could Fox be celebrated as being successful for helping take the country into another entirely unnecessary conflict, having six months before helmed a "strategic defence review" which dismissed the prospect of a war along the lines of that in Libya.

The removal of another neo-con from a position of power, an individual with the brass neck to give a war criminal the "Medal of Freedom" at a dinner for his now wound-up Atlantic Bridge charity, is something to be welcomed. A full inquiry into Werritty's involvement with Fox is now urgently required.

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Thursday, October 13, 2011 

The pornography of terror.

It's proving to be a busy three months for the good people down in Soho Square. No sooner had the BBFC rejected Tom Six's magnum opus the Human Centipede II, a decision which last week they reversed after the director offered to truncate his work, removing scenes of sandpaper masturbation and barbed-wire rape, than they're banning a slightly more serious work, Adam Rehmeier's The Bunny Game.

The two films, although both in the horror genre, could hardly be more different, despite it seems sharing the same black and white aesthetic. The Human Centipede is pure fantasy, albeit it "torture-porn" indebted fantasy; The Bunny Game is startlingly grounded in reality, to the point where the film's star and co-writer Rodleen Getsic, according to the makers, genuinely endured the treatment her character receives from the truck driver who abducts her, everything you see apparently being real. Agreeing to be branded with a hot iron for your art is not the only disconcerting apparent detail: Getsic according to some reviews has experienced abuse herself in the past, something alluded to in this piece she links to from her Twitter account.

If the making of the film was in some way meant to act as both therapy and catharsis, then it poses further uncomfortable questions for both censor and viewer: the BBFC, concerned as ever with the potential for harm, for once quite reasonably worries that "the lack of explanation of the events depicted, and the stylistic treatment, may encourage some viewers to enjoy and share in the man’s callousness and the pleasure he takes in the woman’s pain and humiliation". For the viewer, there's the knowledge that if this is part of an attempt by Getsic to turn her very real past pain into a performance while also emphasising the fact that suffering ends and life goes on, then by watching are you playing a role in something which very few therapists would advise? Are those attracted to such material complicit in deriving entertainment from the very real acts of violence committed by murderers and abductors?

Without having seen the film, it's difficult to be able to say for certain just how brutal the violence is, and whether it genuinely does break new ground in the horror endurance stakes. Unlike the also recently banned Grotesque, which fitted into the Japanese mini-genre of pseudo-snuff horror associated with the Guinea Pig series of films, it instead appears to bear a resemblance to the final act of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, where the character Sally endures almost a full half hour of terrorisation at the hands of her captors, before finally escaping and experiencing the euphoria of freedom. TCM was one of the few films that the BBFC's former director James Ferman felt could not be released in any form, with the organisation's student case study revealing he described it as "the pornography of terror". What it doesn't make clear is that Ferman overruled all those under him at the organisation who felt it could be released, with the unsurprising result being that almost as soon as he retired the film was passed 18 uncut.

It's this fear of the "pornography of terror" which it seems has returned to claim a new victim. Even considering the fact that The Bunny Game is far more graphic than TCM ever was, one thing that is absurd for the board to complain about is that there's no apparent explanation for the violence depicted in the film. The idea that violence, abduction and murder can always be given such an explanation is to ignore the fact that on some occasions there is no real reason; it's simply because the perpetrator can. They may well derive and sexual and sadistic pleasure from their crimes, but that is to only partially understand why. If the film's whole raison d'etre is to portray the grim reality of what some victims have gone through, then it appears the BBFC would rather that such accounts are toned down before they can be accepted as fiction. Indeed, in passing TCM the BBFC noted that

any possible harm that might arise in terms of the effect upon a modern audience would be more than sufficiently countered by the unrealistic, even absurd, nature of the action itself.

The implication appears to be that film-makers at the extreme end of horror can't win either way. Go for too much realism and you'll be banned, while you'll also find your work cut if you cast aside reality and stitch together multiple people from mouth to anus and put abrasive materials into the mix. That adults should be able to decide for themselves what they personally can stomach and experience seems as distant an ideal as it has ever been.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011 

We need to talk about porn.

This government, by its own admission, has a problem with women. Despite being able to keep the majority of this country's men convinced that a policy of economic suicide is a fantastic idea, the women for some reason don't appear to be taking to the plan of retreating to the bunker and hoping desperately that something will turn up, probably because they're the ones losing their jobs while the retirement age is being pushed up. Austerity, inflation busting fuel bills and the prospect of working even longer for those lucky enough to still be in employment are the bleedingly obvious reasons for why support for the coalition has been slipping.

What then do the geniuses in Number 10 suggest to arrest this alarming fall in contentment? As the coalition refuses to go beyond Plan A+ on the economy, the obvious answer is to simply make a number of gestures: no one besides the incredibly easily outraged cared that David Cameron had been slightly rude to Angela Eagle and Nadine Dorries in the Commons, at least amongst those that even noticed, but nonetheless shiny head came out and apologised. Next came some slight changes to child care, which are still a couple of years away and where it's not clear where the money's coming from. Now we have the similarly slight implementation of some of the proposals made by the blessed Reg Bailey, chief executive of the Mothers' Union, in his report on the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood.

If you've spotted a theme here, it might be that even though it's women the government is attempting to get back on side (itself potentially patronising), it doesn't appear as though the boys in charge could find a single one to either consult or advise them on what might just do the trick. Instead it seems as though they've just guessed, and flailed around looking for policies and legislation they'd either delayed or cast aside that at least gives the impression of doing something. Hence the latest wheeze, the adoption of an opt-in system where those who take out new contracts with any of the four big internet service providers will have to make clear that they want full access to "adult" content. Otherwise, much of the web will be off limits, behind a firewall designed to protect children from seeing explicit material.

In this the government has picked up at least one curious ally. The Guardian, the same organisation which last year brought us the Wikileaks files, deciding quite rightly that publishing American cables on Iraq, Afghanistan and general diplomacy online was in the public interest, has decided that's quite enough internet freedom as far as they're concerned. "The internet's many benefits were never intended to include the bombarding of people's homes and children by pornography", it intones. Indeed, David Cameron's modest proposal simply doesn't go far enough, especially as "the destructive effects of pornography on relationships and values, harming not just children but also adults, far exceed any liberating effect which some claim to discern".

Putting aside the fact that almost as soon as dial-up bulletin boards came into being they were used by the teenagers of their era to swap unbelievably low quality semi-pornographic images, and how you could make an arguable case that without the easy access to porn that came with it the growth of the internet may not have been as exponential as it was in the 90s, it's incredibly dubious that the overall effects are as destructive as has been claimed. As we still have an understandable if debilitating aversion to openly discussing the use of pornography, pretty much all we're left with is the two opposing sides in the debate making equally unconvincing arguments. Whether it's the "feminist" porn director Anna Arrowsmith declaring that porn is unequivocally good, or Brooke Magnanti, aka Belle du Jour, saying much the same, or the Graun's surprisingly unenlightened view, no one seems prepared to delve into the middle and do research into whether the porn free for all is having an adverse effect, either on children or adults.

For there's very little even anecdotal evidence to suggest that it's as a result of this new supposed hardcore culture that other aspects of life have becoming increasingly sexualised. It has to be remembered that hardcore wasn't legalised in this country until 2000, when internet video sharing was still in its relative infancy. Rather, the pushing of sex has come overwhelmingly from the tabloid media and its hangers-on, the very same organisations which are now so vociferous in calling for the protection of children. It takes a lot of chutzpah to complain about Rihanna and friends when tits are on every other page of certain papers, and when they follow the every movement of such upstanding role models as Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian and Katie Price, all of whom have featured in their own homemade escapades.

This isn't to suggest that the internet and the cornucopia of perversions available at the click of a mouse isn't potentially problematic: while "rough" material has been around since the very beginning, there's little doubt that American produced "gonzo" porn (and it is overwhelmingly American made porn which is the most widely distributed on the internet, even if European porn is equally guilty and may well have even started the trend) has had an effect on the genre as a whole. Where once it was rare for a film to feature anal sex, it's now probably rarer for a full-length movie to not have at least one or even two scenes containing it. Likewise, the "facial" has now become so ubiquitous that it's difficult not to look for a deeper reasoning behind why almost every scene must end with the man ejaculating onto his co-star's face. Is it all about male power, and more to the point, is it having an effect on the impressionable? There's little doubt that at the very least this, along with the grooming issues which have also been picked up upon, is having an impact on the young and their expectations of sex, something which desperately needs to be properly quantified.

None of this however justifies a blanket prohibition on internet porn at the source unless you "opt-in". Not only is it doomed to failure when the technology moves faster than that which aims to block it, as such filtering will not block the sites where copyrighted material is freely exchanged, such as Rapidshare, with individuals now using social networking sites to swap links, it also makes a mockery of this government's responsibility agenda. The parents are the ones who should decide what their children can and cannot see, with filtering software being so easily available and installable; the government should not be intervening and making that decision for them, let alone in effect decreeing that adults are to be treated like children unless they expressly ask not to be. We already have the Internet Watch Foundation, which along with its praiseworthy work of filtering child pornography also blocks material which is "criminally obscene" and "incites racial hatred". Giving ISPs the power to block effectively whatever they feel like with government approval almost invites censorship.

Equally, blocking porn, even if popular with women, is hardly going to win back their support. 79% of women might want an opt-in system (PDF), but 53% thought it would be easy to get round, as it would be. The last government was authoritarian but ineffective; this one seems determined to carry on repeating the error.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011 

The Fox hunt: hubris then nemesis.

Has there ever been a political scandal as genuinely entertaining as the one that continues to engulf Dr Liam "actually a real doctor" Fox? Sure, in the past many enjoyed the schadenfreude derived from Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitken getting their comeuppance, while in the sex stakes there's been John Prescott and Ron Davies amongst a whole range of others, but when it comes to general hilarity there doesn't seem to be anything to touch the adventures of Foxy and his best man, Adam Werritty. We've previously had the not very good not very satirical takes on the goings-on at the Spectator and riffs on Boris 'n' Dave, which one suspects didn't involve all that much embellishment; in this instance, there's no need for any. Wherever Fox goes, be it Dubai, Israel, America or darkest Peru, Werrity just happens to turn up! Fox could have wandered into a sauna in Sweden or a restaurant in Russia without letting anyone know, and there, in a coincidence to end all coincidences, would still be his old wingman just happening to be conducting a deal with some other chinless wonder who also just happened to be passing.

It's such a remarkable tale that you almost wonder if the civil servants working alongside the defence secretary didn't start believing that Werritty was an actual government employed adviser as well. Why else did no one apparently blow the whistle on this incredibly suspicious, potentially highly lucrative arrangement where by Werritty would follow around his friend like a loyal puppy dog, seemingly jetting around the world at enormous expense for no apparent reason? Didn't they suspect that something might have been going on when Werritty just popped up at a certain destination or was hitching a ride along with his best mate when he seemingly wasn't providing anything other than moral support? Indeed, it seems this entire happy affair wouldn't have been exposed if the Graun's Rupert Neate hadn't kept digging, having originally felt something wasn't right.

You then have to add in the fact that Fox, having originally denounced the various allegations as "baseless" and "wild", then chose his words so carefully in the Commons yesterday that it's a wonder the entire chamber, including the egregious Tories clapping like seals behind him didn't all die of suffocation from laughing so much. Alan Clark told a court that he had been "economical with the actualité"; Fox told the Commons, not quite as pithily, but equally revealingly, that of "the pecuniary interests of Mr Werritty in those conferences, I am absolutely confident that he was not dependent on any transactional behaviour to maintain his income". This was after he had admitted that his "distinctions had become blurred". For someone normally fairly blunt, as an individual imbued with the ethos of Thatcherism generally is, it's curious that he suddenly decides to come across like Bernard Cribbins in Fawlty Towers.

The only reason you can wager that Fox is still in his post is that for Cameron to defenestrate his right-wing defence secretary while Vince Cable and Chris Huhne have remained in their posts would be the equivalent of declaring war on the Tory headbangers, convinced that if only they could have their referendum on membership of the EU and cast off some of the liberal mumbo-jumbo inflicted on the government thanks to Clegg's crew that they would be assured of winning a majority come 2015. For while there's no ocular proof so far of obvious wrongdoing by either Fox or Werritty, their combined behaviour, failure to be immediately honest and 40 meetings, many of them by apparent chance, doesn't just fail the smell test, it breaks new frontiers in the political stench stakes. New Labour ministers lost their jobs for far less, Peter Mandelson and Charles Clarke to name just two.

The whole thing is ever so slightly reminiscent of David Cameron and his relationship with Andy Coulson. Despite being told by everyone and their mother that Coulson was a knave, he supposedly continued to believe his friend's protests of innocence. Far more realistic is that he imagined Coulson simply wouldn't get caught; after all, who could possibly be interested in how a Sunday tabloid filled its sheets with celebrity scandal every week. His biggest error was to think this could continue in government even when the Guardian was tenaciously continuing to follow the trail. Fox has fallen victim to the same belief: having given Werritty a job at his Atlantic Bridge charity, with his pal also making money from various consultancy work which just happened to shadow his jobs on the opposition benches, he thought that this could carry on in government without anyone getting wise to the arrangement.

It's not so much then that this is the arrogance, as Chris writes, that comes from the Tories conceiving themselves as the "natural party of government"; it's instead the old combination of hubris followed by nemesis which infects almost everyone at some point. Cameron managed to survive his brush with danger involving Coulson, although it could still damage him further. It's difficult to see any way Fox, by contrast, can keep his job, although an eventual return to the cabinet can hardly be ruled out should Cameron cut his losses now. The long lasting gift will instead be the image of this very odd couple, just happening to keep meeting in exotic places with Bunter-esque figures having walk-on parts. There might just be a one-off satirical comedy in it.

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Monday, October 10, 2011 

It was a mistake to allow distinctions to be blurred...

So, what's happened and what have we learned while I've been away?

In other words, everything is exactly the same as when I left. Ho-hum.

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Saturday, October 01, 2011 

Boogaloo and hiatus.

So yeah, I'm not here next week. Will be back the Monday after. Hopefully will get the blogging juices back after a break.

Keep it foolish.

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