Monthly Archives: November 2005

Asking ourselves questions about torture

Torture is back. And, as before, we have some questions to answer. Events oblige us, after – let’s face it – decades of complacency, to make a serious moral calculation in the absence of the comfortable absolutes we’ve observed over the last Century or so. So:

Question 1: is an aversion to torture a luxury we can no longer afford? If we scrupulously decline to torture a suspect and thus fail to prevent a terrorist incident killing dozens, have we, nevertheless, done the right thing?

Question 2, more subtly: if we’re offered a sheaf of intelligence gathered by means of torture in some less fussy part of the world which, we’re told, provides good evidence for a planned attack in Britain, should we say “thanks, but no thanks”?

Question 3: what happens to a state that permits torture in its police stations (or, more likely, grants secret CIA ‘torture flights‘ landing rights)? Does it leave behind its claim to being a ‘civilised country’ or does it grimly acknowledge the inevitable conditions of survival in a multipolar world?

Non-Aligned Movement obscure? I suppose so

Ivan, in a comment, says that my Non-Aligned Movement post is obscure and I suppose it is (which is the point of the story, really) but when I was a kid, the Non-Aligned Movement was a big deal, a sort of glamorous anti-UN for hot countries (countries usually lead by blokes wearing army fatigues or tribal robes). Young lefties in the West thought it was, well, just cool, especially when the alternative was Harold Wilson or Richard Nixon.

Non-Aligned politics represented the opposite of the kind of grey zero-sum dead-end of the cold war. The Non-Aligned Movement’s pronouncements used to be read out at the kind of meetings I went to when I was getting political. Castro and Tito were the big names. The Movement had a place at the big table in an era that begins to look, from here, like a kind of golden age, certainly a simpler time. I guess the Movement’s eclipse was inevitable, especially once countries started to drop out. Non-Alignment just isn’t cool any more. As a diplomatic option is seems to be available only to nutcase-States like North Korea and Yemen. Alignment is where it’s at (and yesterday, George Bush landed in Mongolia to thank that nation for its careful alignment with the US-led coalition in Iraq).

Non-Aligned Movement Non-Interesting

The first ever meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement, Belgrade, 1961
The Non-Aligned Movement (anyone remember the Non-Aligned Movement?) has decided that it doesn’t get the news coverage it deserves in the Western Media and that the movement needs to do something about it. The group, which was set up in the Sixties as a kind of alternative, anti-imperialist UN, and which still represents over half the planet’s population, has decided to set up a news agency of its own, called NNN (for Non-aligned movement News Network) which will be based in Malaysia and work to achieve fair coverage for the Southern half of the planet in the Northern half’s press. It would be way too flippant to respond that the NAM might get better coverage if it ever actually did anything (so I’d never do that), but there’s an obvious and painful irony in the fact that the Western press has apparently completely ignored the announcement. Update: The Beeb is now running a story about the announcement (from a World Service source).

Excited scientists

A seismic map of part of the sea bed from the North Sea, clearly showing a river (the Shotton) and other landscape features
At the bottom of the Southern North Sea there is a landscape: river beds (including one as big as the Rhine which has been named The Shotton), coastlines, lakes and lots of preserved human settlements, spread out over the tens of thousands of square kilometres of land lost when the last ice age ended and sea levels rose, cutting off our island from the continent. This landscape came to light when it occurred to a PHd student that there might be some mileage in examining seismic data from the oil exploration companies who’ve mapped the sea floor in minute detail over the last few decades.

I love excited scientists and these archaeologists are very excited. They’ve begun to uncover a stone age landscape, essentially untouched in 9,000 years – dwellings, hearths, graves, middens and all the rest – and they’re beside themselves. The only problem, obviously, is that it’s under the sea. But… Do they look bothered? The Bridge at the Bottom of the Sea is brilliant radio and this is the kind of quietly mind-blowing news that should really be on the front pages instead of all the other rubbish. Here’s an MP3 in case it’s overwritten.

By the way, I find myself wondering, how does a creationist account for this vivid and pristine evidence of human settlement from thousands of years before the bible’s proposed start date? Don’t answer that.

Heartbreaking space news

The last ever view of micro-probe Minerva, about to be lost forever, from JAXA Asteroid mission Hayabusa, November 2005
I don’t think I could work in space exploration (like they’d have me). The stress or the grief (or both) would kill me. The tiny (really tiny: it weighs about a pound) probe dropped from the Japanese Asteroid mission Hayabusa has got lost, drifting off into space instead of cleverly bouncing across the surface of the asteroid to scoop up space dust. The last image we’ll ever see of Minerva (for that is its name) is an impossibly melancholy one (see above) – that tiny blob near the right hand end of the asteroid is Minerva, about to keep its appointment with eternal oblivion…

Sophisticated kids’ fiction

The front cover of Carl Hiaasen's kids' novel HootThe front cover from Elmore Leonard's kids novel A Coyote's in The House
Elmore Leonard, A Coyote’s in the House
Carl Hiaasen, Hoot

Under the seedy glamour and wise-cracking cynicism of your classic American crime novel there’s usually a pretty basic story with all the ingredients for a great kids’ book – a hero, a journey, a challenge, a resolution blah blah. I don’t know why nobody thought of this before but Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard, two of the best living crime writers, have both recently had a go at this new sub-genre (what shall we call it? Kids’ Crime? Kid Noir?) and with great success. I think the Hiaasen is my favourite but it’s close.

Both feature classic crime fiction heros: brave, laconic, drily funny (although Leonard’s happens to be a dog and Hiaasen’s a thirteen year-old boy) and both stick to the well-trodden landscape of modern crime noir: Hiaasen’s suburban Florida and Leonard’s Hollywood. I guess these books are aimed at young teens but my 5 and 7 year-olds have been laughing like drains at Hiaasen’s Hoot at bedtime over the last few nights. It’s such a good read that we’ve wound up reading two chapters instead of the usual one on several occasions. A real pleasure.

The Hiaasen features a bunch of endangered Burrowing Owls which, it turns out, are a cause celebre in real-life Florida and the Leonard is illustrated by Lauren Child, which is a bonus.

Outstanding political radio

Geoff Mulgan ran New Labour Think Tank Demos and then Number 10′s Strategy Unit. He’s an interesting man, full of ideas, unconventional, a proper modern thinker/doer. His three part series for Radio 4′s The Westminster Hour is the best political radio I’ve heard in years. A genuine insight to the policy-making process and a really good overview of politics’ crisis – received opinion given a good kicking in the process. Should be compulsory listening, especially for the crowd of puffed up old-timers on the Labour back benches who are getting ready to use their new-found clout to wind back the clock to precisely five minutes before Tony Blair was elected leader.

(I’m going to leave it to trust that the programme’s Real streams will not be removed or overwritten…)

Howard flips

Michael Howard's new 'All Coppers Are Bastards' tattoo
We’re getting used to a certain amount of political role reversal since Blair turned the tables on the Tories eight years ago but watching Michael Howard putting the boot into the police in yesterday’s Commons debate was about the most surreal political inversion I’ve seen, at least in this parliament – almost worth the historic defeat all on its own (his new ACAB tattoo is the talk of the tea room).

The trees are moving

This is where the story starts to get really Shakespearian. Blair’s messianic tendencies – his readiness to put belief ahead of logic – make him look more and more like Macbeth by the day (the fact that the cast of characters is practically all Scottish helps). His isolation can only intensify now. Gordon Brown – Blair’s embittered Malcolm – found 49 happy Macduffs on the seething Labour backbenches today. Blair’s protracted public assassination at the hands of his gleeful party enemies has begun.