Evacuating people from Cairo – only £300

Yesterday morning, the UK government sent a plane to Cairo to evacuate Brits who want to leave. Other governments are doing the same, but only the UK is charging for it. It’s £300 per person. When asked to justify this charge, the Foreign Office said:

It’s very important that we maintain commercial flights in and out of Egypt, so we don’t want to be in a position where we are providing flights at no cost, because that would undercut commercial airlines

So on the one hand there are people wanting to leave a city in turmoil, which has seen looting and attacks on journalists. On the other you have commercial airlines, who might lose money. I can see how the Tories would struggle with this one. But, sure, the violence hadn’t properly erupted at that point. Maybe there’s a somewhat-heartless-but-vaguely-coherent case that people could wait safely in their hotels for their return trip, so it’s fair to charge for an earlier flight. But hey, if you’re a family of four, it’s only £1200, right? If you can’t afford that, why haven’t you worked harder?

But today they’re sending a second plane, because of the ‘continuing fluidity and unpredictability of the situation’. So yesterday’s events have clearly had an impact, and there must be demand. It’s still £300/person, though. To be fair, you don’t have to pay up front. But this isn’t the kind of thing covered by regular travel insurance – Tesco’s policy explicitly says it doesn’t cover political unrest, rebellion or revolution. Tell me how this isn’t just exploiting scared people.

Going down in flames if that was required

President-elect Obama has chosen Susan E. Rice as his UN ambassador. She sounds good:

During her first run at the State Department, Ms. Rice was a point person in responding to Al Qaeda’s 1998 bombing of United States Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But her most searing experience was visiting Rwanda after the 1994 genocide when she was still on the N.S.C. staff.

As she later described the scene, the hundreds, if not thousands, of decomposing, hacked up bodies that she saw haunted her and fueled a desire to never let it happen again.

“I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required,” she told The Atlantic Monthly in 2001. She eventually became a sharp critic of the Bush administration’s handling of the Darfur killings and last year testified before Congress on behalf of an American-led bombing campaign or naval blockade to force a recalcitrant Sudanese government to stop the slaughter.

It’d be nice if the world could get better at stopping genocide. Via Norm.

Letters to a Young Contrarian

Over the summer I read Christopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian, twice. Its message is: bloody well stand up for what you believe in. It’s an ode to rationality and fierce decency in a world where – it says – harmful behaviour is too often defended by well-meaning apologists. In a series of letters to a young student, it says that ‘left-wing’ does not have to mean ‘relativist’, and does not mean always trying to reach a compromise: sometimes it means putting your foot down and saying ‘stop’1. It says that authority – of all kinds – should always be closely watched, and details the traps and pitfalls into which they will try to sucker you. It’s not, though, a teenage paen to being generically anti-authority, or rebelling for the sake of it – it just says we shoudn’t be ashamed to make moral judgments, regardless of who we end up allying with (but if you do end up with someone awful, don’t be afraid to call them out). It’s a sentiment plenty call bombastic or naive, to which plenty reply ‘that’s exactly the problem’. I don’t agree with everything, and I am far, far from a natural rebel2 but I finished it wanting to fix the world and not caring who I annoy in the process.

Letters also gives the lie to popular commentary regarding Mr Hitchens. It was published in 2001, pre-9/11, yet his opinions then are almost entirely consistent with his opinions now. He’s appalled by governments who refuse to make a moral stand against evil dictatorships, he’s appalled by the cowtowing to fundamentalist Islam, he’s appalled by the denigration of reason in the name of faith. Add 9/11 into the mix and it’s obvious that his current stances are (at most) logical continuations, and often no different. This is far from the beloved ‘he drove to the right after 9/11’ trope so beloved of commenters. I’d properly bought into this, and it was quite the surprise to find I was wrong.

And, not for nothing, he also has a ridiculously impressive writing style. Here’s something from his week, on the US election:

On “the issues” in these closing weeks, there really isn’t a very sharp or highly noticeable distinction to be made between the two nominees, and their “debates” have been cramped and boring affairs as a result. But the difference in character and temperament has become plainer by the day, and there is no decent way of avoiding the fact. Last week’s so-called town-hall event showed Sen. John McCain to be someone suffering from an increasingly obvious and embarrassing deficit, both cognitive and physical. And the only public events that have so far featured his absurd choice of running mate have shown her to be a deceiving and unscrupulous woman utterly unversed in any of the needful political discourses but easily trained to utter preposterous lies and to appeal to the basest element of her audience. McCain occasionally remembers to stress matters like honor and to disown innuendoes and slanders, but this only makes him look both more senile and more cynical, since it cannot (can it?) be other than his wish and design that he has engaged a deputy who does the innuendoes and slanders for him.

Regardless of the content, just look at the way your eyes glide over his sentences. They’re not short or lacking complexity, yet there are no cognitive breakpoints – it’s all effortless. How does he do that?

Letters is a short book, and I highly recommend it. And even if you disagree with everything he says, his writing is a thing to behold.

  1. I am, admittedly, a sucker for this kind of thing – I love the S3 West Wing scene where Oliver Babish explains to Abbey Bartlet why she will not settle her court case, but will instead stand up and take the bastards down. Bloody brilliant, that man. []
  2. this weekend I was about to change my Facebook strapline to ‘put a ribbon round my neck and call me a libertine’, just because I like the poetry, until I realised I fit no definition of ‘libertine’. []

It’s like rain

Last week William Hague took the lead in PMQs, and said:

Isn’t there something supremely ironic about being lectured about food waste by a prime minister who is past his own sell-by date?

Which is quite supremely stupid. That’s not ironic, that’s just arsing about with words. Isn’t there something supremely ironic about being told to clean up your act by someone who was washed up long ago? Isn’t there something supremely ironic about being lectured on food dialogues by a has-bean? See: stupid. Just a worthless ad hominem.

Obviously it’s meant to sound like the PM is being hypocritical, which isn’t surprising given ‘you’re a hypocrite’ is apparently the only technique taught at politician school1. Harriet Harman didn’t do much better, with some comment about not getting dietary advice from someone who used to drink a lot. Or something. I stopped caring.

Anyway, this reminded me of B4L’s recent post about Labour reactions to David Davis, which makes the rare valid point about hypocrisy (a point completely ignored by the crazies in the comments). Also worth seeing are the 10 Socialist Commandments. It’s an oasis of sanity, that site.

  1. sorry, bitter today []

I’ll decide the important issues in elections, thank you very much

I don’t understand one-issue by-elections. I’m not going to vote for the BNP candidate who declares the campaign solely about free bouncy castles. That’s ass-backwards. If he gets elected, there’s nothing saying he can only vote on bouncy-castle-related issues. Trick. I might agree with David Davis about the 42 days, but I disagree over a lot more. Even if he campaigns on general civil liberties, that’s only one part of the political agenda.

I’m assuming his seat is safe, so this is really about consciousness-raising. Which could be worthy, but only works if everyone is in on the game. You can’t have a meaningful by-election that’s only about one issue. That’s contradictory. If everyone agrees to use the by-election as a platform to vote on civil liberties issues, fine, but they haven’t. The voter’s duty is to elect the person who best espouses their views, and that averaging-out should take all issues into account. This is just buggering about with democracy, and isn’t fair.

Strikes me that an MP in the shadow cabinet is already in a good position to fight these things, but I suppose he’s gambling on publicity helping his cause. Which is convenient, as you can’t argue with the publicity argument. PR is a good argumentative firewall. Claim that something is good/bad publicity and the discussion has to stop, as nobody really has any clue. Discussions about the ‘New Atheists’ eventually devolve into this – one side claims they’re harming the cause, the other side says they’re not. And that’s it. Sometimes you can look at the results over time, but gauging the effects of publicity is complex at best – both sides can cherry-pick statistics forever – and rarely produces anything definitive.

David Davis has probably done a good job of screwing the Labour Party, though. If Labour put forward a candidate, at their current popularity levels, they’ll go down hard. If they don’t, they’ll look scared. They could just say this outright, given it’s what everyone’s thinking, but for some reason government doesn’t work that way.

My MP’s thoughts on climate change

Theyworkforyou.com email me whenever my MP – John Maples – says anything. He’s in the Conservative Party, and not the most active of MPs:

  • Has spoken in 12 debates in the last year — below average amongst MPs.
  • Has received answers to 9 written questions in the last year — below average amongst MPs.
  • Replied within 2 or 3 weeks to a high number of messages sent via WriteToThem.com during 2007, according to constituents. [Andrew’s note: not mine, though]
  • Has voted in 60% of votes in parliament — well below average amongst MPs. (From Public Whip)

He didn’t turn up for the smoking-ban votes, and seems to be against gay rights when he’s there, which isn’t often1. He was present for all the hunting ban votes – you know, the important stuff – and was strongly against.

It seems a bit odd not to be around for such things. Maybe he’s been ill. But when he’s there, he does things I don’t like. I wouldn’t (and didn’t) vote for him, but I still like to follow what’s going on, and today I had an email to say he’d been fairly active in a recent debate.

Turns out he’s a climate-change denying n00b. Here’s his first contribution to the debate on the Draft Climate Change Bill:

After the Bill abolishing slavery was passed by the House, the British Navy patrolled the Atlantic, stopping other countries indulging in the slave trade. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we do the same with global warming?

Helpful, I think you’ll agree. Then comes:

I do not believe that the science is anything like as settled as the proponents of the Bill are making out. In fact, the scientists hedge their predictions with an awful lot of qualifications and maybes that those who invoke them often omit. The science is a bit like medicine in the 1850s. The scientists are scratching the surface of something that they do not really understand, but no doubt will. They are probably on to something, but nothing like the whole story. What they say does not justify any of the apocalyptic visions that we have heard set out.

This is called the language of science. You have to put in all the qualifications, or you’re not doing proper science. Full debunking. Medicine in the 1850s? There was no medicine in the 1850s! This is supposed to be an accurate comparison with the thousands of climate scientists who’ve been collecting data and making confirmed predictions for decades? And then he accuses other people of making statements with no basis?

The record shows that the climate warmed from 1920 to 1940, cooled from 1940 to 1975, rose again from 1975 to 2000, and since 2000, according to the Hadley centre, has not risen at all. In the past seven years, global temperatures have not increased. All the predictions that we work from, whether from the IPCC or anybody else, are based on models, none of which can account for the cooling between 1940 and 1975.

Here’s a graph of global temperature over the last century, and explanations of why it varies. Things are always more complicated than you’d think. I’ve no idea whether climate models take into account the supposed cooling – it seems to be understood fairly well, from what I can tell – but here’s why not-perfect models are still useful and make confirmed predictions.

There’s lots more – he’s been reading books by climate change skeptics – but I want to skip to this:

Over the past 150 years, sea levels have risen by about 30 cm, which is the predicted rise for the next 100 years. Okay, it will happen slightly quicker, but we coped with that rise perfectly easily over the past 150 years so we can cope with it over the next 100 years.

Wtf. I lost electricity this evening, and the freezer’s been warming up. All the ice cubes have been fine for the last hour, though, so I’m sure they can cope for the next. No worries. What’s that, you say? Everyone else’s freezers have broken down too? What do I care about them?

Secondly, we have urban heat islands. In cities, temperatures have risen considerably. The temperature in London has risen between 4 and 6° C since 1950, as it has in Los Angeles, Tokyo and other places. It is a fact of urbanisation called the global heat island effect. We know how to deal with that. If we are richer, we can have air conditioning. We know that if we put in more parks, water and trees in cities, we can cool them considerably. We know how to do that. We can adapt to that very successfully.

Brilliant! Air conditioning is the solution! You’ll be kept cool, and there are no ironic disadvantages. Only if you’re rich, of course – if you’re poor, screw you. And what an idea to build lots of parks in, you know, the world! If only someone had thought that planting trees might help. Ooh, could cost a bit, though – best watch that.

Did I mention he’s a Conservative? Can you tell? It’s almost like the rest of the world doesn’t exist.

To be fair, he abruptly comes back down to Earth a bit later:

Some man-made warming is going on. It is worth taking action now: a price mechanism through carbon tax, energy efficiency and nuclear power are worth pursuing, especially nuclear power. Research into alternative power sources—fusion, carbon capture and adaptive strategies—is also worth conducting.

I agree about nuclear power, but I’m not sure about fusion – that’s a way off, I think. Hardly makes up for the earlier comments, though.

I’m far from knowledgeable about climate change, but I see no reason to doubt the conclusions of massive, independent studies by the UN and countless governments. Whenever I investigate any claim that supposedly casts the whole thing into doubt – usually by non-scientists, and usually with a great deal of paranoid conspiracy thrown in for good measure – there’s a comprehensible annihilation of it by people who know what they’re talking about.

So this is all a bit depressing, but at least he’s showing an interest.

  1. to be fair, the train service from Stratford to London isn’t the best []

Let the sniper-fire comment go

I can’t help feeling sorry for Hillary Clinton. She’s at the point in a political career where the vitriol is non-stop, and while I’m aware politicians have to be thick-skinned, the media scrum to kick someone while they’re down is always unpleasant. I’m sure she can cope ok, but I don’t see the virtue. I also find it galling that people are still bringing up the infamous sniper-fire comment. On Sunday Norm said “she was either lying or deceiving herself bigtime”, and the general media attitude seems to be she’s either a liar or stupid. Thing is, memory doesn’t work like that. Events merge and stories change with the retelling, all without deliberate intent.

Steve Novella explains properly. It’s entirely possible she genuinely remembers landing under sniper fire – even if it didn’t happen, people can still have entirely convincing memories – and this whole mess came as a complete surprise. And memory failures aren’t stupid, they’re normal. I’m amazed this doesn’t happen to politicians all the time – how many people and events do heads of state deal with in a given amount of time? I need to make notes on someone’s network layout before leaving the building or I’ll have forgotten it by the next time they call. I’d expect a politician to have a better memory than me, but they’re not super-human. When you’re making who-knows-how-many speeches per week on a non-stop campaign trail, something’s going to slip. Probably lots did, but most of it wasn’t intended to demonstrate a personal virtue, so nobody cared. Dr. Novella sensibly doesn’t take a position on the truth of the matter, but come on. What are the odds that an experienced politician deliberately lied over something so easy to check? I tend to think this was something that should have been double-checked, wasn’t, and blew up way out of proportion to the mistake.

I’m personally happy Obama has the nomination – refusing campaign donations from lobbyists is quite the stand – but the schadenfreude at Clinton’s defeat is ugly. I’d personally like to see her picked as running mate, but I get the impression there’s not a hope in hell. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of analysis of where she went wrong – abruptly becoming a gun-toting, hard-drinking non-‘elitist’ was particularly transparent, if you ask me – but the sniper-fire comment deserves to be let go.

As succinct a definition as you’ll find

Welsh channel S4C filmed a love scene for drama Caerdydd1 inside a baby-changing room at the Welsh Assembly. Some people aren’t happy, including Conservative William Graham:

This is obviously unpleasant and unnecessary. Potentially it’s distressing for people who don’t like the idea of one of the buildings they funded being used in this way.

Do they not show Torchwood in Wales? Then came the most cognitively dissonant statement ever:

One doesn’t want censorship but nothing that is controversial or concerning should happen.

Coincidentally, this is also the Conservative Party’s new slogan.

  1. the website for which is currently displaying ‘Bad Request (invalid verb)’ []

A new definition of ‘lying’

I’m spending lots of time following the US elections, at least partly because UK politics is so embarrassingly stupid at the moment. To wit, David Davis on the MP bugging row:

“Why was this allowed to happen without ministerial knowledge?” he said. “When it was discovered in December, they didn’t tell Jack Straw or Jacqui Smith.

“These intercepts have broken a prime ministerial promise. They involve the intercept of the justice whip – someone who works with Mr Straw.

“This is a very serious issue. It’s a breach of a prime ministerial undertaking to Parliament, so it makes the prime minister a liar, basically.”

The undertaking was 40 years ago. I’ve no idea on the rights and wrongs of bugging MPs, but a breach of a 40-year-old prime ministerial pledge without Gordon Brown’s knowledge does not make him ‘a liar’. That is stupid. Is it possible there’s been a slow gas leak under Westminster Village for the past few weeks?

Media frenzy

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith told the Sunday Times she wouldn’t feel safe walking alone at night in her area of London. In the past few hours I have heard this described as:

  1. Correct. It’s a warzone, and here’s an anecdote to prove it.
  2. Incorrect. London’s streets are completely safe, and here’s an anecdote to prove it.
  3. ‘Feeding a culture of fear’.
  4. A major gaffe – what’s the Home Secretary doing admitting that the streets aren’t safe?! (the media might hate ‘spin’, but if you don’t use it you’re apparently a rubbish politician).

How exactly should she have answered that question?