Monday, October 20, 2014 

Poisoning national life? That'll be two years.

Gosh, was it really but two weeks ago some of the internet world was up in arms over the apparent suicide of Brenda Leyland, aka Sweepyface, aka one of those meanies still obsessed with the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and still insisting her parents might have had something to do with it, or at least bear some responsibility?  Unpopular opinions certainly, but not illegal, and probably not really deserving of a doorstepping from a Sky reporter.

How fast things move these days.  Just as we saw in the aftermath of the riots, when some judges took it upon themselves to hand down harsher sentences to those who didn't riot but suggested they might than to some of those who did, so now Chris Grayling promises the maximum sentence for "trolls" will be lengthened from the current six months to 2 years.  Anyone would have thought we don't have a prison system in crisis, one where the debate over whether Ched Evans should be allowed to play football again ought to have been delayed until he'd served the full 5 years he was given after being found guilty of rape, but no, space can always be found for those who "poison our national life".

Apparently Chloe Madeley was last week subjected to "online terrorism".  I say apparently as I really, truly, don't care enough to look any deeper.  One suspects the rape threats she received amounted to what they usually do, a handful of people at most, sometimes not even that, reaching for the most obvious weapon in their verbal arsenal, either sexual assault and/or death.  Back in the day, we called the people whose first response to getting bested in argument was to say the equivalent of "I'd beat u up m8" internet tough guys.  Because in the majority of examples, that's all they are: cocky and arrogant online but likely to shit themselves if someone turned the tables and arrived on their doorstep.

This isn't always the case, as #gamergate has (somewhat) demonstrated.  Madeley doesn't seem to have had her personal information posted online, as Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian have.  #Gamergate has also now been going for two months, an incredibly long time by internet standards for a drama to still be developing.  For those who've missed the whole farrago up to now, in microcosm #gamergate is either one of two things: a crusade against corrupt videogame journalism, or a dying, backwards community trying desperately to keep its domain in aspic, without politics, especially left-wing politics and feminism gaining a foothold.

As you might expect, in reality it's neither.  Both sides doth protest too much: despite how gaming journalists have tried to argue there was no truth behind the claims of corruption from Quinn's ex-boyfriend, who detailed how she had slept with journalists and others in the wider industry while still in a relationship with him, there has long been a problem with cronyism at best and outright corruption at worst in gaming media.  Rather than face up to the initial outcry following the spreading of Eron Gjoni's allegations, one of the first responses came in the shape of multiple news and review sites declaring the "gamer" label itself dead, all on the same day.  You know, exactly the sort of collusion and refusing to listen the old media used to indulge in and still does, albeit on a smaller scale than before.

Then again, you can't exactly blame them considering some of the abuse directed their way.  Think the trolling of Caroline Criado-Perez et al except multiplied many times over.  Nearly everyone with even a passing role has been "doxed", items really have been sent through the post, and so on.  It has also been to a certain extent orchestrated, one internet subculture organising for all out war on another.  Their enemy is "SJWs", social justice warriors, imposing their values and standards on others whether they like it or not, and anonymous most certainly does not like it.

You'd think being something of a left-winger, believing wholeheartedly in equality and so on I would be in alliance with those criticising games and gamers for their continued Neanderthal ways.  And I would be, if that first response hadn't been so woefully constructed, the backlash against the mere asking of questions so vehement.  The reason this has gone on so long without burning itself it out is precisely because those on the side of Quinn and Saarkesian have risen to the bait over and over and over, just as Criado-Perez and those supporting her did.  Moreover, just as the coverage of the banknote campaign and its aftermath made clear how journalists themselves ramped it up due to how they knew those involved, or indeed, how they were being targeted themselves, so any semblance of objectivity went almost immediately.  It's shone a light on the vulnerabilities and insecurities of both sides, highlighting groupthink and the way narratives are constructed in this extremely new media landscape.

There is of course no defence for threats, for "doxing" people, for scaring them to the extent they feel compelled to leave their homes.  Concerted, sustained trolling has to be tackled in some way, and if that means involving the authorities, so be it.  You don't have to be a cynic however to note it's only some victims the media cares for, and there are plenty of journalists who have never taken to their writing becoming so open to criticism.  We've already seen people imprisoned for making tasteless jokes, or given community service for daring to make angry political statements. Giving judges the power to impose longer sentences for going beyond what we consider the bounds of free speech, will, as it always does, encourage them to use it, just as publicity also makes them believe they have to set an example the next time a spotty herbert with a miserable life and a hateful online alter ego appears before them.  The only people who ever truly poison national life are those in positions of power, and the vast majority of keyboard denizens have none.

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Friday, October 17, 2014 

Unnatural.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014 

Not a statement from John Grisham.

(This is a post about child abuse and paedophiles.  I despise "trigger warnings", but considering the content on this occasion thought it should be made clear.)

The reaction to John Grisham's remarks in his Telegraph interview has been all too familiar.  His argument, which it must be said is not wholly convincing in itself and certainly lacked in delivery, was there is a major difference between someone who finds themselves prosecuted for downloading a small number of indecent images of a post-pubescent child and someone who actively abuses a child.  Grisham was talking in the context of America in particular jailing far too many people, including "60-year-old white guys" who "drunkenly" search out such things, relating an anecdote about an old friend from law school caught up in a "honey trap" operation by Canadian police.  The Telegraph itself notes a study from the U.S. Sentencing Commission that found the average sentence for possessing child pornography had doubled since 2004, from 54 months to 95.

Jon Brown of the NSPCC, talking to the BBC, repeated the regularly heard claim that "every time these images are clicked on or downloaded it creates demand that ultimately fuels more child abuse".  In the Guardian, Suzanne Ost writes that "seeking out these images can encourage the market and thus the abuse of more children to fulfil demand".  Which raises the following questions: what kind of a market is there in child abuse images?  Does one exist at all, and if it does, what form does it take?  Does it adhere to the classical laws of supply and demand?  Does it resemble the market for adult pornography, or say the one for illegal drugs?

Attempting to answer those questions is as you might expect, incredibly difficult to next to impossible.  What we do know is that child pornography operated for an extremely short period of time as an above ground industry, and only then in a tiny number of countries, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, although magazines were also produced in this country as well the United States.  When it comes to the internet era, less than 10 years ago research suggested a "substantial amount, if not most" of the child abuse imagery circulating could still be traced to this period, roughly between 1969 and 1987, when one of the last mail order magazines was closed.

This will have undoubtedly changed since then. There is however there still little evidence to suggest there is a market for child abuse images beyond the relatively small paedophile communities established on private forums, and most notably, on the so-called "dark net".  Nor with the exception of the occasional professional operation, mostly based in eastern Europe, have there been what can be described as commercial producers of "new" child abuse material rather than simply distributors of that which already existed.  Most of the forums and sites to be found on the dark net, of which there have been a dwindling number since the shutting down of Freedom Hosting, require registration, with the most "exclusive" even requiring that prospective members first upload child abuse images they have obtained from elsewhere before they are given access.

One of the best insights we have into the volume of child abuse material available online was provided by the Anonymous raids on Lolita City, with those behind the hacking of the site claiming it hosted over 100GB of indecent images.  Anonymous first discovered Lolita City and the hosting of child pornography on Tor via the Hidden Wiki; the wiki itself claims that a month before it closed, Lolita City hosted 1.4 million images.  How far the Hidden Wiki can be relied upon is obviously open to question, as with any wiki: one of its pages attempts to do nothing less than provide a "history of CP", including describing in graphic detail the abuse of children depicted in some of the videos presumably available via the sites it provides links to.  The page for one of the newest established forums, up only since August, claims it already has over 110,000 registered users.  For context, the BBC suggested that Black Market Reloaded had around 300,000 registered users back in December, while the FBI indictment against Ross Ulbrict, the alleged owner of the Silk Road marketplace, claims it had 957,079 registered users.  The BBC also in June conducted an interview with a self-described former operator of a dark net paedophile forum, which he said had 40,000 registered users.  His own cache of material amounted to "12 gigabytes".

We can't of course know how much of the hosted and exchanged material would be found to be indecent under the Protection of Children Act.  There has long for instance been a demand for "non-nude" images of children, and on some of these forums they would almost certainly be hosted alongside the illegal content.  Without doubt the most widely available indecent content is that categorised as Level 1, erotic posing without sexual activity.  This raises the question of how erotic posing is defined, as past controversies have centred around.  By the same token, the rarest is likely to be Level 5, which involves either sadism or bestiality, referred to by some paedophiles as "hurtcore", although it would presumably also comprise some of Level 4, defined as penetrative sexual activity between children and adults.

None of which answers the question of whether merely viewing an indecent image, beyond its illegality, really does encourage the abuse of more children, taking out of the equation for the moment whether doing so can encourage the viewer himself to either abuse a child or lead to the belief that sexual attraction to children is normal.  Certainly, the forums hosted on Tor would soon wither if there was no new material posted, and they are without doubt used by abusers themselves to share images and videos of their crimes, and are encouraged to continue by their fellow abusers.  At the same time, it is far too simplistic to claim as Brown does that "every time these images are clicked ... it creates demand".  It's certainly arguable that this could be the case if some of the admins of these sites were producers of material, and also if they were charging for access to it.  Very few, if any are.  Even those actively seeking out material through web searches or on "clear net" p2p services are unlikely to be creating further demand, mainly because the battle against abuse imagery has been so successful when it comes to the overground.  The image Brown conjures up is one analogous to that of the adult pornography business, which could not survive even in its current emasculated form without consumers being willing to pay for content.  It just doesn't work like that, and never really did.

Ost in her piece goes on to further describe how viewing child abuse images harms beyond the simple market and demand argument, and on this she is on far sturdier ground, also pointing out how much harder it is to stumble across such material than it once was.  One wonders though whether the immediate criticism of Grisham in such condemnatory terms really helps anyone.  It certainly doesn't add to our understanding of how online paedophiles are currently organised or how they operate, nor does it do anything but further stigmatise those attracted to children who have no intention of acting on their feelings.  It could however push them towards others who do.  Surely that's something no one wants, regardless of how paedophiles as a whole are viewed.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014 

Judge actions, not just words.

It's another of those days when you look down the headlines and think, is there really nothing else going on in the world than outrages about who said what to whom, and arguments over whether the threats of one side are more reprehensible than their opponents'?  Well, admittedly, there is, it's just the other big story continues to be Ebola, which is still failing miserably to gain a foothold in the West, whereas it continues to ravage West Africa, killing poor black people, who aren't quite as important.  Also we already seem bored about the siege of Kobani, for similar reasons.

We come then to Lord Freud's comments about disabled people and the minimum wage at a fringe meeting at the Conservative party conference.  If you completely ignore the context in which he was speaking, then yes, they really are as bad as they look on the surface.  Minister says some disabled people aren't worth the minimum wage!  He must resign forthwith!  Look closer however, and it becomes apparent he was responding to a question from a Tory councillor who related an anecdote about a person who wanted to work but at the same time found it difficult to do so and keep the same entitlement to benefits.  The solution David Scott found was to set him up as a company director, meaning he could do some gardening, get paid for it and not be penalised for doing so.

The conversation is admittedly not conducted in language which everyone would use: Scott talks of the "mentally damaged" not "being worth the minimum wage" and goes on to speak of "them" in a more than slightly patronising, if not outright offensive way.  He is though describing the contradiction between wanting to help the sick and disabled either back into work or to be able to work, and how the system currently immediately ends support once it's deemed someone's capable of holding down a job.  Freud in response mentions universal credit, which to a certain extent is meant to be able to adapt to fluctuations in the number of hours someone works, then agrees with Scott on "there is a small, there is a group ... where actually they're not worth the full wage".

How far Freud is agreeing with Scott on his overall point and just repeating his words is obviously open to interpretation.  He has since apologised on precisely these grounds, saying he shouldn't have accepted the "premise of the question", while making clear the disabled should "without exception" receive the minimum wage.  Certainly, if Freud really does believe a group, however small isn't worth the full wage he can't remain in his position.

Always you should consider a person, or in this instance government's deeds alongside their words.  David Cameron, reasonably enough, said he would take no lectures on looking after disabled people; perhaps though he should take some responsibility for the coalition's woeful record on the work capability assessment and how Iain Duncan Smith insisted everyone needed to go through the system again regardless.  That's not to forget the botched introduction of the personal independence payment system, still causing misery, the closing of more of the Reemploy factories or the impact the "spare room subsidy" has had on the vulnerable.  Also needing to be factored in is how many disabled people have reported feeling under suspicion, such has been the change in mood towards anyone who might be claiming benefits.  The coalition can't take the blame for all the anti-scrounger rhetoric, not least as Labour first encouraged it while in power, but it picked up where they left off.  On your works ye shall be judged, and the Tories and indeed the nice, caring Lib Dems must be.  Harshly.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014 

On recognising Palestine.

In general, the principles for recognising a state outlined by Malcolm "Rockets" Rifkind in yesterday's parliamentary debate on Palestine are good ones.  A state needs "a government, an army, a military capability", the second of which is conspicuous by its absence in Gaza and the West Bank, although Hamas if no longer Fatah most certainly has a military capability.  It also has two governments rather than one, he argued, which while ignoring the recent second unity deal between Hamas and Fatah is probably strictly true.  None of this is the fault of the Palestinians themselves, Rifkind said, and it's also the case that Israel has not previously accepted an eventual Palestinian state having a military at all.

Worth remembering then is how the government acted shortly after the vote at the UN giving Palestine observer status, the first step towards being recognised as a state.  William Hague in his inimitable half-pompous half-bluff style addressed parliament beforehand on how the government needed "assurances" from the Palestinians they wouldn't do anything silly with their new status, like try and pursue Israel at the International Criminal Court, as only Africans and ethnic cleansers can be prosecuted there.  Assurances weren't received, so the government despite fully supporting a two-state solution abstained.

No such assurances were demanded in contrast from the successor organisation to the Syrian National Council, when the government deemed it was the "sole legitimate representative" of the Syrian peopleThe Syrian National Coalition wasn't a government, didn't have anything like full control of the Free Syrian Army which even then was not an army in a real sense, only having a military capability of sorts, most of which it had but a tenuous connection with.  This hasn't exactly worked out, as we've seen.  Close to irrelevant from the moment it was born, it's now completely irrelevant, with hardly anyone continuing to pretend it has the support of almost any of the groups still fighting.  Except that is for US senators, who've been gullible from the outset.

There are nonetheless problems with recognising Palestine as a state when there is nothing to suggest there will be a peace deal any time soon.  With Hamas still refusing to recognise Israel, and the Netanyahu government now insisting on the Palestinians accepting Israel as the "nation-state of the Jewish people", it's difficult to know whether, even if against all the odds a future Israeli government reached a deal with Fatah it would resolve anything.  John Kerry's Herculean effort to break the impasse foundered principally over the Israeli refusal to release a final tranche of 26 prisoners.  As Mahmoud Abbas or sources close him briefed New Republic, if he couldn't get the Americans to persuade the Israelis to release 26 prisoners, how were they ever going to give him East Jerusalem?  Tzipi Livni, now presented as the member of Netanyahu's coalition most dedicated to reaching a peace deal openly told the Palestinians during the previous round of talks they were right to believe the continued annexation of land in the West Bank and expansion of settlements was designed to make a Palestinian state impossible.  It wasn't official government policy, but it was of some of the Israeli parties.

Perverse as it would be to claim there was never any intention on the part of Netanyahu and his ministers to try and reach a deal, it was on a plan that would have been rejected both by Hamas and the Palestinian street.  As Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat argued with Kerry, the 1967 borders which Israel has done so much to erase were not up for discussion.  Susan Rice, exasperated with the Palestinians quibbling over such minor details, remarked they "could never see the fucking bigger picture", apparently oblivious to how that was precisely what they were thinking about.

Recognising a Palestine not worthy of the name would not be a solution.  In a completely backwards way, the wrecking amendment tabled by the Labour Friends of Israel emphasising recognition should only come after a peace deal almost had it right: difficult as it will be for many to accept, only a deal which includes Hamas is likely to last.  Nor is there much point in engaging in gestures that don't lead anywhere; yesterday's vote was symbolic, as everyone stressed.  Would it however make clear to the Israeli government just how far opinion is turning against it?  To judge by the coverage in Israel itself, as well as the New York Times, the answer on this score at least was yes.

Solidarity is after all next to pointless when you're the one staring down the bullet of a gun, as the Kurds have been discovering the last few weeks.  Palestine is a cause that while always popular, ebbs and flows in the public conciousness: the efforts of apologists for the almost biennial slaughter in Gaza to paint all those who protested as anti-Semites have continued unabated while attention has turned elsewhere.  Nor has public opinion shifted because of Operation Protective Edge; the mood has been heading in this direction for a long time now.  If yesterday's vote further makes clear that "fucking Europe" means what it says, with all the consequences it has for Israeli trade, we might be heading towards the point where the Israeli political class realises it can't go on creating "reality" on the ground and getting away with it.  That will ultimately require American pressure of the kind we've yet to see or are likely to any time soon.  It is however coming.  Whether it will be too late by then for the two state solution remains to be seen.

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Monday, October 13, 2014 

The UKIPs are coming!

Last week's by-election results told us precisely nothing we didn't already know.  In Clacton, a popular local MP won back his own seat after resigning it as part of a marketing campaigning designed to keep the Nigel Farage beerwagon rolling.  In Heywood and Middleton Labour won back their safe seat, the party's share of the vote holding up.  Only of slight interest is how the party's majority was cut to just over 600 votes, as it shows how people vote differently in by-elections: the Tory, Lib Dem and BNP vote collapsed (the BNP, still in turmoil, didn't stand) and UKIP profited as a result.  Some Labour supporters no doubt switched to UKIP as a protest, with former Lib Dem voters going back to Labour making up the difference.  Moreover, apathy, non-interest or the pox on you all mentality were the real winners, with a turnout of just 36%.

And yet, and yet, because the former meant the UKIPs finally have a seat at Westminster, which hopefully means everyone can now shut up about it, and the latter obviously means the UKIPs could possibly, maybe, have a major impact on the outcome of next year's general election, even if they don't win more than a handful of seats, if that, all we've heard since has been the equivalent of the UKIPs are coming!  The UKIPs are coming!

Yes, just when you thought the why-oh-whying had withered slightly, the number of here's why UKIP is getting so much support articles and think pieces reaches 9,000 againThe same old points are made over and over: it's immigration stoopid; it's because the political elite are all professionals, never had a real job in their lives; they don't communicate in plain English, can't get their message across with descending into slogans and wonk-speak; they're all the same; and so interminably on.

The fact is there are clearly different explanations for why UKIP has gained support in some areas, hasn't in others and will most likely fall back substantially come next May.  I think John Harris has overstated at times the UKIP "surge", but his piece on Clacton last week nailed why Douglas Carswell was always likely to retain his seat, albeit for a different party.  Telling people just how right-wing Carswell was, the response was one of not caring.  UKIP has become a "safe" protest, an anti-immigration party that isn't racist, merely xenophobic, albeit one fronted by a former metals trader with a German wife.  Carswell's more out there politics were counteracted by his being a good constituency MP, while most former Tory voters were more than happy to support his shifting slightly further to the right.  If there was anger or doubts about the use of public money to stage an unnecessary by-election, those unimpressed stayed at home.  Clacton also fits, as John B has noted, the pissed off at the march of progress demographic as first identified by Lord Ashcroft's polling, and perhaps exemplified by Tilbury.  People who don't properly know why they're angry, who are opposed to change yet also don't want things to remain as they are.

Apart from opposition to immigration there's not much that unites them apart from contempt and a sense of being abandoned.  Hence the desperate search for just why it is they feel this way, with some of the reasons alighted upon saying more about the insecurities of politicians and journalists than getting to the heart.  Voters saying politicians don't understand their lives doesn't mean they want them all to talk like Farage, nor have they've developed an instant aversion to PPE graduates, as Owen Jones seems to believe.  An amalgam of the crash, the resulting austerity, continued anger over the expenses scandal, the belief that London and the surrounding area dominate everything, a "popular" media that focuses on the negative, while the "serious" puts undue emphasis on ephemera and identity politics as opposed to that of the everyday, along with just good old general alienation and the lack of difference between the big three parties is largely how the majority have reached this point.  They've been further encouraged by a media that is enthralled as much as some of it is appalled by UKIP, to the point where certain sections view the party almost as their creation.  The emergence of a fourth party is also exciting, or at least is in comparison with much else of politics, and so the hype feeds itself.

There's danger in both over and under-reacting to all this by the parties.  The Conservative response has been a mixture of not understanding it combined with appeasement: freezing in work benefits at the same time as promising a giveaway to the upper middle is almost precisely how not to win back working class UKIP defectors, while the moves on Europe merely demonstrate how there's little point in voting for a party that only goes halfway towards the exit and has encouraged the Carswells and Recklesses to make their move.  Labour doesn't really want to talk about immigration full stop, whereas it should recognise it made a mistake in 2004 while arguing in reality it's the least of our problems.  The Lib Dems meanwhile have just gone the complete anti-populist route, and it's not exactly won them many friends.

Should Mark Reckless manage to win in Rochester and Strood then it might be worth getting concerned.  The Tories are set to throw everything at it, while in normal circumstances it's a seat Labour should be taking in a by-election.  Even if Reckless fails, the announcement today that Farage has been invited to one of the leader's debates underlines how the media certainly doesn't want to let their little engine that could run out of puff.  If UKIP have won enough support to be represented, then surely the Greens and SNP should be too, especially when either or both genuinely would bring a different perspective to proceedings.  The Graun, lastly, also sounds an ominous note: taxes are going to have to rise after the election, and yet none of the parties have begun to so much as broach the subject.  Should UKIP fall back as some of us believe it will, it or something like it could soon be resurrected when it again turns out a harsh truth wasn't communicated.

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Friday, October 10, 2014 

Barnard 68.

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