Saturday, 17 March 2018

A miscellany of links

1. Penrose on Hawking.

2. The 2018 Sony World Photography Awards.

3. An MP has tried being a rough sleeper for a week - for the second time.

4. Everything you ever wanted to know (and more) about different health systems across the world. It seems that American healthcare is really expensive because they pay their doctors and nurses loads of money, and they pay more for the drugs too.

5. A light-skinned, green-eyed young Pakistani woman (yes, her appearance is relevant) devised a game about arranged marriage. It put off suitors for a bit, but now she's had over 50 proposals.

6. Emailed love-letters to trees. And some replies.

7. "Can we have kale salad with lemon parmesan dressing?" and other questions asked by American children with (what seem to me) strange diet and entertainment options.

8. Even Harvey Weinstein mostly failed: a piece about how hard it is to be violent. "To be skilled in violence is to keep your own adrenaline level down to medium levels, while driving up your opponent’s to high levels that make them incompetent. On the other hand, if adrenaline levels are equal, neither side performs worse than the other, and the confrontation stalls out, the fight aborting or winding down by losing momentum." A Martin Amis character in Money said that the trick of fighting is to persuade the other guy as quickly as possible that he is losing. I think that is the same advice in different words.

9. The Washington Post has a piece (by a deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations) about aircraft with certain highly advanced technical capabilities. It discusses "videos, along with observations by pilots and radar operators, [that] appear to provide evidence of the existence of aircraft far superior to anything possessed by the United States or its allies. ... In some cases, according to incident reports and interviews with military personnel, these vehicles descended from altitudes higher than 60,000 feet at supersonic speeds, only to suddenly stop and hover as low as 50 feet above the ocean. The United States possesses nothing capable of such feats. ... these mysterious aircraft easily sped away from and outmaneuvered America’s front-line fighters without a discernible means of propulsion." You can watch a video of one of them at the link. The point the author makes is that these aircraft should be investigated. That sounds pretty reasonable to me: if, say, the Russians or the Chinese have developed such aircraft then the Americans surely ought to be interested in learning more about them. But there are two schools of thought on this subject. Why? Well, let me put it this way: I've managed to get all the way to the end of this without using the word "UFO".

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

The Tale of Babar the Policeman; or Is the Law an Ass?

This is the judgment of the Court of Appeal in an immigration case. My guess is that most ordinary people would think it shows that, at almost every turn, immigration law is an ass.

Mr Babar entered the UK at some point during 2000/01 and claimed asylum on 29 January 2001. He was refused asylum. However, he was granted exceptional leave to remain in the UK. Why? Because he was on bail in Pakistan for some kind of criminal offence and so there was a real risk that he would be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment due to the prison conditions and the likelihood of mistreatment by the police and prison guards, i.e., sending him back would have been a breach of his rights under Article 3 of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights.

Right. So he was accused of a crime, on bail, absconded to the UK and did not have a good claim for asylum? My guess is that most people would say at this point that Mr Babar should be sent back. He doesn't sound like he's accumulated many points on any points-based immigration system you can imagine.

Wait - how do we know that the police in Pakistan are so bad? Well, one source of information is Mr Babar himself: "Mr Babar had been in the police for some seventeen years and ended up commanding a squad of 20-30 people in the anti-narcotics division.  He himself admitted in interview to beating and threatening arrested persons in order to obtain information and to permitting those under his command to do so." (Although please note that "his conduct was no more than the norm for police officers in Pakistan at the time".)

I'm guessing most people would now say that he is definitely not someone to have in the country.

But then there is this: "The Secretary of State was satisfied that this [i.e. his police 'work'] constituted a pattern of widespread and systematic crimes against the civilian population which satisfied the definition of crimes against humanity. Mr Babar was therefore excluded from the protection of the Geneva Convention by Article 1F(a) and could claim neither asylum nor humanitarian protection." (This Geneva Convention is the 1951 Refugee Convention.)

Really? A narcotics squad that beats people up and threatens them is really bad. I'm not disputing that. But a crime against humanity? Are we seriously in genocide territory here? Surely Mr Babar's just a dodgy cop, not a war criminal.

Let's leave Mr Babar for a moment. Is there a Mrs Babar? Yes there is! Mrs Babar and their three children followed him to the UK and were granted indefinite leave to remain. Why? How? I don't know.

Anyway, back to Mr Babar. In 2012, having been in the UK lawfully for 10 years, he makes his own application for indefinite leave to remain, based on the fact that he had been in the UK without incident for 14 years (14 years? since 2000? search me), that he had worked hard and not been a drain on public funds and that he had very close family ties with his wife and his children (I should hope so too).

How would you decide that one? I'm going out on a limb here, but my guess is that after 14 years living in the country together with his family with no problems, many people would be inclined to let him stay.

But don't forget the key features of the case from the legal point of view, namely (1) that he feared for his safety in Pakistan and (2) that he was one of those "crimes against humanity" guys that you read about (or at least see mentioned in those long articles full of Balkan names that you skip over to get to the sports section).

So the Government asked him a bit more about what might happen if he went back to Pakistan. "Mr Babar responded in a short statement in which he claimed still to fear that he would be detained and ill treated if returned to Pakistan.  This was despite the fact that in his application form for indefinite leave he disclosed the fact that he had returned to Pakistan for holidays twice in 2009 and again on three occasions in 2012, in each case without any difficulty and without the authorities showing any interest in him."

He went to Pakistan 3 times in 2012! That's three times before his application was made in the September of that year. He was practically commuting to the country!

Anyway, the Government decided that his crimes against humanity outweighed everything else and decided to send him back. Mr Babar appealed. The case got appealed a couple more times, hence ending up in the Court of Appeal.

You'll have to click the link to see what the Court decided. But I'll tell you one thing that weighed heavily with them: "Article 1F [of the Geneva Convention] is intended to protect the integrity of the asylum process and is designed to ensure that individuals should not be allowed to avoid being returned to their country of origin where they may be held accountable for their actions. Upholding the international rule of law requires no less."

That's right: it's apparently important to consider whether Mr Babar, who (let's recall) was originally absconding bail when he arrived in the UK but who has been back to Pakistan many times since of his own volition and without incident, should avoid being returned to Pakistan in order to face trial for 'crimes against humanity', those 'crimes' being acts that were normal for policemen in Pakistan. Not only is considering that unlikely possibility important, but upholding "the international rule of law" (one of the weightiest phrases in any lawyer's toolbox, normally accompanied by a blast of Beethoven's Ninth and a prim leader in one of the more expensive newspapers) demands no less.

I don't blame the judges - they don't write these laws. And it's hard to blame the Government either, constrained as it is by Conventions drawn up in the wake of the evils of Nazi Germany and the turmoil of World War II. But we are left with the situation in which they have to go through a bizarre process of deciding whether a man of doubtful qualities who tried to avoid criminal proceedings in Pakistan and make a better life for himself in the UK is more like a Jewish person fleeing Nazi torture or a Nazi criminal fleeing the Nuremberg trials - even though he took repeated holidays back to Pakistan. If you imagine a Jewish refugee popping back to visit family in Warsaw during the War, or a fugitive Hitler visiting Nuremberg to check how his old mates were getting on with their legal difficulties, then you'll see how crazy this all is.

On another note, fans of One Direction might be pleased to see that Mr Babar was represented by Zane Malik.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Update on my predictions

You may recall that I made three predictions to be fufilled by the end of next year or so. UKIP has already lost its leader, so that's one achieved already. I'm quietly confident about Korea, what with Trump making the breakthrough that has eluded his predecessors (if you read Scott Adams, the man who best predicted and explained Trump's rise and success, then you'll find Trump much more comprehensible than if you read the outraged commentary of most writers - people who can't understand how Trump got to be President are unlikely to be able to explain what he is doing now).

However, I am becoming a little worried about my third prediction. I was hopeful when The Economist, a thought leader in these things, dedicated its front cover and a long article to explaining how the West got China wrong. But then there was that awful poisoning in Salisbury and the media tried to attribute the Italian election outcome to Russia and I became pessimistic again.

So, in my own essentially ineffectual way, I am going to try to push the prediction towards fulfilment. Here's an article that deserves more publicity about how China tried to swing the election for Bill Clinton.

As the article states: "This is not a theory, it is historical fact". 

It continues: "In the end, several prominent Democratic fundraisers, including close Clinton associates, were found to be complicit in the Chinese meddling efforts and pled guilty to various charges of violating campaign finance and disclosure laws (most notably James T. Riady, Johnny Chung, John Huang, and Charlie Trie). Several others fled the country to escape U.S. jurisdiction as the probe got underway. The Democratic National Committee was forced to return millions of dollars in ill-gotten funds (although by that point, of course, their candidate had already won).

It was a scandal that persisted after the election in no small part because many of Clinton’s own policies in his second term seemed to lend credence to insinuations of collusion.

Rather than attempting to punish the meddling country for undermining the bedrock of our democracy, Bill Clinton worked to ease sanctions and normalize relations with Beijing—even as the U.S. ratcheted up sanctions against Cuba, Iran, and Iraq. By the end of his term, he signed a series of sweeping trade deals that radically expanded China’s economic and geopolitical clout—even though some in his administration forecast that this would come at the expense of key American industries and U.S. manufacturing workers.

Clinton authorized a series of controversial defense contracts with China as well—despite Department of Justice objections. Federal investigators were concerned that the contractors seemed to be passing highly sensitive and classified information to the Chinese. And indeed, the companies in question were eventually found to have violated the law by giving cutting-edge missile technology to China, and paid unprecedented fines related to the Arms Export Control Act during the administration of George W. Bush. But they were inexplicably approved in the Bill Clinton years.

For a while, polls showed that the public found the president’s posture on China to be so disconcerting that most supported appointing an independent counsel (a la Mueller) to investigate whether the Clinton Administration had essentially been “bought.”

Law enforcement officials shared these concerns: FBI director Louis Freeh (whom Clinton could not get rid of, having just fired his predecessor) publically called for the appointment of an independent counsel. So did the chief prosecutor charged with investigating Chinese meddling, Charles La Bella. However, they were blocked at every turn by Clinton’s Attorney General, Janet Reno—eventually leading La Bella to resign in protest of the AG’s apparent obstruction.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Meanwhile in Sweden

"In 2011 only 17 people were killed by firearms. [But in] 2017 the country had over 300 shootings, leaving 41 people dead and over 100 injured. ... Gang members have even used hand grenades to attack police stations. Between 2010 and 2015, people were killed by illegal firearms at the same rate as in southern Italy.

... there were 43 grenade incidents in Sweden last year ...

... Not one firearm-homicide case in Stockholm was solved in 2016. ... Preliminary results for 2017 show that the clear-up rate for firearm murders has risen to a (still woeful) 30% in Stockholm. But over 100 cases remain unsolved.


International Women's Day - the barristers' angle

So this just arrived in my inbox:

I'm not sure what the underlying message is here. Is it: only 92% of our brilliant Bar Council committees are chaired by women, so we need to improve progress for women to get it to 100%? Or: we the Bar Council have stuck women with doing the tedious committee work men shun, so let's progress them off that and onto better things? (Women, as shown in the picture, being the sort of bun-haired characters who luxuriate in foliage - or is she desperately looking up for help escaping a carnivorous plant?) The Bar Council needs to make up its mind whether it is boasting or moaning.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

13 unwelcome things

(1) Unwelcome online contact, or Those Crazy Yanks (I). When is a Child Instagram Ready? "In his first weekend on Instagram, my 9-year-old posted 20 times in 24 hours. ... Only a few times did I see anything sexually inappropriate, which I promptly blocked and reported to Instagram." Well, that's alright then.

(2) Unwelcome personal contact, or Those Crazy Yanks (II). "When Alyssa Navarrette, a third-year student who is studying anthropology and art, came home for her first visit after starting college, she was taken by surprise when her mother hugged her. “If you don’t want to be touched and your mom wants to hug you, you should be allowed to say no,” Ms. Navarrette said. “It’s about having autonomy over your own body.”" Yes. But, um, your own mother? "“I’m also looking for it to help people get justice or get acknowledgments at least for microaggression,” said Mx. Janecko, currently on co-op in San Francisco, working at a mime theater." I'm fairly certain that this is not a parody, but the mime theatre made me pause. A cracking good read either way here.

(3) Gay Hitler. That really was someone's name.

(4) Hominids were in Crete much earlier than in Africa? Not a welcome theory in the scientific community.

(5) Have you heard about the "Holocaust survivor who dies and goes to heaven. On arrival he tells God a Holocaust joke. And God says: “that isn’t funny”. The survivor replies: “Oh well, you had to be there”." From David Baddiel on Jewish humour here, although note that the rest of the article has nowhere near the punch of that joke.

(6) Lots of countries have mass shootings, not just the US. Not a welcome thought among all sorts of people, I'd guess.

(7) Marion Maréchal-Le Pen made a speech to conservatives in the US. That sounds interesting, doesn't it? So I wanted to read more. One thing she said was this: "France is in process of passing from the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church to the little niece of Islam ...". And here is where I read that:

I don't know how internet adverts get chosen. I mean, I think alms-giving is a good idea but I'm not a Muslim so there's no zakat in my browsing history to prompt this ad to pop up. I'd like to think it is brilliant marketing by Muslim Aid (this is what we do - this is who our opponents are), rather as the Mormons have used The Book of Mormon to push the Book of Mormon. Or at least epic trolling. Follow the link and see what adverts you get.

(8) EU law in England: “The flowing tide of Community law is coming in fast. It has not stopped at high-water mark. It has broken the dykes and the banks. It has submerged the surrounding land. So much so that we have to learn to become amphibious if we wish to keep our heads above water." So said Lord Denning. The article is a good insight for the layman into how English lawyers often think about European law: "Lord Neuberger, a few weeks after the referendum, saw the influence of EU law as perhaps no more than a 50-year “blip” in the life of the centuries-old common law." We'll see. I wish I could find the exact quote now, but Tony Weir wrote, long before "Brexit" was even a word, that the Europeans are people to whom our laws are strange, and who are making them strange even to us. 

(9) Fake news, fake love: "perhaps the defenders of porn should consider that the common purveyors and sharers of fake news across social media are also engaged in a form of self-abuse, combined with titillation, and fantasy life. They no more believe that Barack Obama is running guns to ISIS than that the surgically enhanced 30-year-old woman in a plaid skirt is a very bad Catholic-school girl. It’s just a reality they prefer to envision. One where they can gaze into a backlit screen, click around, and imagine they aren’t wasting their lives clicking around on a backlit screen.

(10) Serial killers (down) and mass shooters (up) - they're just different kinds of people.

(11) Those Russian bots could learn a thing or two from a 68 year old blind guy in a basement.

(12) All is not well in South Africa: it is "not obvious that the median wage has increased since the fall of apartheid". 

(13) Finally, a But. Perhaps unwelcome inconvenience should be welcomed, or even sought out?

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

We need to talk about Michael Rosen

So what about that Michael Rosen, eh? Lovely guy, I'm sure. Heart's in the right place, no doubt. Sincerely dedicated to propagating his political beliefs, granted.

But - and I tread carefully here - does he really deserve his place in the pantheon of children's writers?

Let me put it this way. If you are feeling despondent about the way things are nowadays, then here's something to cheer up you: you can take it from me that we are living in a golden age of writing for the very young. To be blunt, in the Olden Days they didn't have Julia Donaldson. The Gruffalo, Stick Man, The Snail and the Whale, Zog, Tabby McTat, Room on the Broom - I could go on and on. Any one of these would be an instant classic, but as a body of work they are extraordinary. They have something for everyone, from quick-witted amoralism (The Gruffalo) to reassuring traditionalism (Stick Man), from sensible feminism (Zog) to being-appealing-to-Gordon-Brown-ishness (The Snail and the Whale), all with proper rhyme and rhythm, exciting stories and satisfying twists. And then there is The Paper Dolls: has any book wrought so many tears from so many adults in so few words?

No one else is quite in Donaldson's league, but there are many other talented writers working today. It would be invidious to name names, but trust me there are lots of them. And young children also have all the wondrous innovations of books with flaps and levers and bits to pull and bits to stroke and bits that make noises, many of which are ingeniously and carefully put together by people who obviously understand and care about children.

To all these modern marvels we can add the older treasures that have endured, the Shirley Hugheses, the Tiger Who Came to Teas and the Rosie's Walks. And the AA Milnes, Dr Seusses, David McKies and Maurice Sendaks, and let's not forget the Erics, Carle and Hill.

But somehow, nestling in company with The Very Hungry Caterpillar and unaccountably above The Bog Baby, is Michael Rosen.

Now, I know that some people like We're Going on a Bear Hunt. But (a) Rosen only adapted the words from a song (he added "swishy-swashy" and "squelch-squerch") and (b) you have to admit that at least 90% of the joy of the book consists in the excellent illustrations by Helen Oxenbury, the source of all of the book's drama, interest and mystery. If you think of Bear Hunt with fond emotion, it is probably because you are thinking of that group of children helping each other over the arbitrary obstacles Rosen has thrown at them, the pictures dreamily reminiscent of some golden half-remembered holiday from your own childhood; or else you are thinking of the final wordless scene in which we see the lonely bear at his beachy cave by the edge of the world - in short, you are reaping what Oxenbury has sown.

Rosen has now written A Great Big Cuddle, a book of 'poems'. Here's one:

You will see that Rosen has again been fortunate in his illustrator. This time it is Chris Riddell, who has put evident thought and effort into each page. But what about the words? Surely "The Button Bop" is a one-off?

No. Here is "Once":

Once upon a plom
There lived a poor little mom
Along with her children three.
There was a great big Gom
A Flom and a Chom
Who all sang, "Me, me, me".

Then the Flom said, "Ping!"
And the Chom said, "Ting!"

... and I just can't bring myself to carry on typing. 

"Lunchtime", by contrast, avoids using made-up words by rhyming "lunch" with "munch" and "crunch" a few times (sample line "Munch munch") before concluding with the resounding couplet "Munchy munchy // Crunchy crunchy". 

"Wiggly Wiggly" begins "Jiggle jiggle, we're all wriggly // Wriggle wriggle, we're all wiggly" and, although I'd like to report that it's a savage indictment of the Trump Administration that ends "snigger, snigger, govern bigly", in fact it ends "wiggly wiggly, giggly giggly". Riddell has provided some charming piglets for this page, but unfortunately they do not obscure the words.

This one I quite liked:

Hello nose!
Hello toes!
Hello shoes!
It's time to snooze!

Time to eat
A yummy cakey!

But that's because I made it up myself just now. Imagine reading it printed in large colourful letters accompanied by Riddellesque mammalian entities entertaining a winsome toddler with comical shoes and a baroquely-iced cake, and you will hten be having a similar - but better - experience than ploughing through A Great Big Cuddle.

I saw that A Great Big Cuddle won the CLiPPA Award 2016. This fascinated me. What did it beat? What even is the CLiPPA Award? Seriously, was there any competition for the prize?

A bit of googling tells me that the CLiPPA (Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award) "is the only award for published poetry for children in the UK. The CLiPPA encourages and celebrates outstanding new children’s poetry and is presented annually for a book of poetry published in the preceding year." Sounds good, doesn't it?

In fact, Rosen's book shared the prize with One, by Sarah Crossan. One is an altogether different kettle of fish: it's a sort of blank verse novel about American teenagers who are conjoined twins. It's not very UK-ish, judging by the preview on Amazon ("and Grammie's pension // doesn't even cover the cable bill", "Not everyone in the world is an asshole"), which made me wonder whether the CLiPPA's rubric should refer to "a prize for poetry for children published in the UK" rather than "published poetry for children in the UK" (and where does the "Primary" in CLiPPA fit in?). On the other hand, you've got to admire the ambition behind writing that sort of thing, and it very much sounds like the sort of book that wins prizes (do our conjoined twins form a friendship with an HIV-positive teenager? I'll leave you in suspense on that one).

It turns out that there really were other books on the shortlist, beaten by both Rosen and Crossan. One was Poetry Pie by Roger McGough. Here is the title poem. Have a quick read - it'll take you a couple of seconds and it's worth it. You'll see that it's a poem about poems, nicely done. It has mention of rap and hey nonno no, an unobtrusive little allusion to another poem that a small child might plausibly spot and be delighted by ("Ning nang nong"), and it ends, just before the final repeat of its (slightly varying) refrain, with the word "end". In short, it is a perfectly decent poem for a young child written by someone literate. 

So we are forced to conclude that Rosen is even more of a National Treasure than Roger 'Lily the Pink' McGough CBE FRSL. But I am still not sure why.