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Maria

UK CT readers, please read this Open Rights Group myth-buster on the surveillance legislation the three main parties have stitched up behind closed doors, and plan to vote through as an emergency tomorrow. Is your MP planning to vote for it? If they are, ask them if they will support a (to be tabled this afternoon) amendment that will bring the sunset clause down to 6 months – surely enough time to fix the ‘emergency’.

(More analysis from Paul Bernal here.)

(Email your MP here.)

What is DRIP?
The Data Retention Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP) will require internet and phone companies to keep their customers’ communications data for up to a year. It is being rushed through parliament this week: MPs will vote on Tuesday and the Lords will vote on Thursday.

DRIP will replace the Data Retention (EC Directive) Regulations 2009. The legal basis of these regulations has been uncertain since the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) after the CJEU found the EU Data Retention Directive 2006/24/EC to be invalid.
Legal wranglings aside, the ruling was very clear. Keeping everyone’s data in case they commit a crime seriously interferes with our right to privacy and our right to a private family life.

Additionally clauses 3-5 extend UK surveillance law – RIPA - to US and foreign companies. These measures are controversial, not related and there is no evidence that there is any reason for any rush.

Below are five arguments that the Government is using to justify its passing – and the real reason why it shouldn’t.

“This is an emergency”
The CJEU ruling was delivered on 8 April, 2014. The government has had three months to address the court’s findings. We believe that it is the threat of legal action by Open Rights Group and other organisations that has prompted this ‘emergency’ legislation – not the threat of terrorism or criminal activity. The government should not mislead us about the urgency of this legislation. Given its significance and the threat to our civil liberties, It should not be rushed through without proper parliamentary scrutiny.

Background: After the CJEU ruling, Open Rights Group and other organisations contacted the Home Office to ask them if they would be asking internet service providers to stop retaining data. In May, the Home Office responded by saying that ISPs should continue to retain data. Last month, over 1,500 ORG supporters wrote to their ISPs asking them to stop keeping their data. They responded by saying that they were acting under the instructions of the Home Office.

“This is not an extension of powers, it’s restoring the status quo”
The Prime Minister said, “we are not introducing new powers or capabilities” but in fact DRIP does not just deal with Regulations that were made illegal by the CJEU ruling. Clauses 3 to 5 of the Bill make amendments to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). DRIP extends the government’s surveillance powers in two ways:

It extends the territorial scope of RIPA - this means that the government can issue interception warrants for communciations data to companies outside of the UK.
It extends the definition of “telecommunications service” within RIPA. The effect of this is unclear, but it appears possible the new definition could include services such as Gmail.

“It’s the only way we can catch criminals”
We agree that the targeted retention of communications data can help the police to tackle serious crimes, such as terrorism and child abuse. However, the CJEU ruling outlined a low threshold for deciding to retain data. For example, if a serious crime if committed, data could be retained for a particular geographical region to support a criminal investigation. This means that the police could still retain data for specific investigations, rather than the blanket surveillance of all citizens.

The CJEU ruling was clear that blanket data retention interfered with our right to privacy and our right to a private family life. Other European countries, including Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Romania and Sweden, have rejected it. These countries continue to tackle serious crime without undermining their citizens’ civil liberties through blanket data retention.

“There is a sunset clause”
The Bill will expire on 31 December 2016. The government claims that this will ‘strengthen oversight and transparency’ but that is two and a half years away. Given that the Bill is to be rushed through parliament in a week, we believe that this date is too late to allow for proper parliamentary scrutiny. If legislation is to be rushed through without debate, an earlier expiry date of 31 December 2014 would allow for scrutiny in six months.

“The Bill includes concessions that take into account the CJEU ruling”
DRIP ignores the main part of the CJEU ruling – that blanket data retention severely interferes with the fundamental rights to respect for private life and to the protection of personal data. The government has claimed that other aspects of the Bill will strengthen oversight and transparency. For example, they claim it will restrict the number of public bodies that can request communications data. Yet this concession does not appear in DRIP or the secondary legislation that will implement it.

Fuzzbot Wingfield

by Maria on April 16, 2014

E and I are acquiring a hairy baby this weekend. We can’t agree on a name. He is against human names, except for when he isn’t. I tend towards cute ones that will be embarrassing to call out in a south London park. We’re not allowed to get pretentious ones after writers and such. Suggestions?

Fuzzbot Wingfield
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To the point of collapse, and beyond

by Maria on April 8, 2014

I spent last week in a posh beach hut somewhere very hot, sleeping off the latest ICANN meeting and reading a stack of books. But mostly just sleeping.

ICANN meetings are inhuman. The nice ‘back to school’ bit, exchanging cheery hellos in the hallways with people you’ve not seen for months, is over in the first eighteen hours. From then it’s an unmerciful eight or nine day slog through jetlag, air conditioning, bad tempers, disinformation, misinformation and information overload. Forget about having time for meals, exercise or sufficient sleep; I ration my fluid intake because there literally isn’t enough time to go to the loo. (This is bad; I nearly always get what I now call my Tuesday Migraine.) I did not get outside in daylight from the afternoon I took the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow to a ten-minute walk to an external meeting, seven days later. That’s not at all unusual. The meetings are scheduled and conducted as if the people taking part don’t occupy human bodies. The topic of ICANN volunteer burnout is an evergreen, especially people who aren’t paid lobbyists of one sort or another. As a friend wrote to me this morning:

“The result (of fewer volunteers doing an increasing amount of policy work) is that the organization retreats from its roots as a bottom-up, multistakeholder policy body to a staff-driven stakeholder interest-based policy organization. If that transition takes place, then the fundamental position of ICANN in the Internet’s management ecosystem may change significantly.”

But that’s not what I want to talk about.
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ICANN Public Forum Bingo

by Maria on March 27, 2014

Here in Singapore at the ICANN Public Forum, we’re at the end of a brutally busy week talking about how to run the Internet naming and numbering systems. It’s an event comprised almost entirely of ritual, and to understand what’s going on you need to be able to translate some of the long-loved incantations. Here are a few:

When someone says: I’m going to simplify things.
They mean: Be confused. Be very, very confused.

When someone says: I’m going to back up here.
They mean: I’m going to make up some history, now.

When someone says:I’m going to name the elephant in the room.
They mean: My next observation will be startlingly banal.

When someone says: Speaking on my own behalf. As the VP of Blah for Blah Blah Corporation, ….
They mean: I don’t want you to think about who’s paying me to be here, but you better listen because we have a lot of money, customers and power / votes, ministries and battleships.

When someone says: We need to show leadership.
They mean: I should be in charge.

When someone says: There needs to be a bottom-up process.
They mean: Nobody asked me about this.

When someone says: I want to talk about process.
They mean: Hold up. I need to consult my boss.

When someone says: I realise I’m what’s standing between you and lunch / dinner / drinks
They mean: I know you won’t like what I’m going to say. Please don’t throw anything.

When someone says: We are fixing the plane while it’s in flight.
They mean: I don’t understand what’s going on, but I know I don’t like it.

When someone says: The perfect is the enemy of the good.
They mean: Ignore everyone else’s ideas and just use mine.

When someone says: Any other comments on this?
They mean: Will everyone please, for the love of all that is holy, STFU?

A journalist friend just emailed me some questions about Friday’s announcement by the US Dept. of Commerce NTIA that it will work towards internationalising the oversight of some of what ICANN does. The IANA function has long been a source of international grumbling, particularly amongst middle income countries that don’t feel they have any influence over a service the global Internet depends on. Some of this grumbling is purely opportunistic, especially in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations, but the bulk of it is of long standing. Ahead of an international meeting convened by Brazil next month to work on principles for Internet governance, the NTIA has made its play to get back in control of the process and the story. It’s asked ICANN to bring people together to come up with a transition plan to internationalise IANA.

If this hadn’t been a weekend when Russia annexed a province of a neighbouring country, the premise of the TV series ‘Lost’ became a serious contender for explaining current events in, or perhaps far away from, the Indian Ocean, and my husband’s best man made headlines saying he is ashamed of toeing the Ministry of Defence’s line that UK military kit in Afghanistan was a-ok, I expect the news that the United States is to renounce its exclusive hold on part of the Internet would have been front page news.

But it hasn’t been all that much in the news, and I am too jammed to blog anything comprehensive about the topic, so here are some hastily typed responses to the questions I was asked:
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I have endless important topics I need to, should and must blog about, not least the fact that I was in Crimea some time back and am currently glued to the radio, thinking very hard about it and not sure quite what to say. But anyway, I hope this post may end up being useful to somebody, somewhere, sometime.

Right now, I’m doing a lot of what consultants term ‘desk research’. That is, I read a lot of stuff on the Internet, must of it about technical topics. Every now and then, some person or organisation I admire collects a lot of information into a report they are really proud of – and which looks incredibly useful to me – and I think ‘that is so good I’m going go ahead and read the whole thing.’ And that’s when the nuisance begins.

Look, I am old. Or what to my parents’ generation was called middle-aged, anyway. (When I was a teenager, women my current age wore scarves to protect their weekly set.) When I am very interested in something I’m reading on the Internet, I print it out and scribble, underline and write things on it. That’s what we old-timers do. Actually, I think that’s what most people still do when they want to ‘engage with a text’, and it’s why despite being a crazy-early adopter of Kindle type devices, I haven’t used one in over five years. (But I am grateful to e-readers for finally liberating me from the fear that scribbling on books and bending down their corners is desecration. It may also be my own mortality that causes me to mark things I am reading, as a none too subtle note to myself that it’s the only literary mark I am likely to make. Also, it helps me to remember later on that I’ve read something and even what I thought of it.)

Anyway, back to the PDFs of the useful and improving reports on matters technical or technocratic (it’s all the same in my world, that of Internet policy). The problem is, the people who produce these reports – and I am not naming names, because that would be ungrateful and the reports really are great, just unreadable – are so thrilled or relieved to finally get them out the door, they whip up something that looks great on the screen and just publish it to the Internet where saps like me download it and print it out at our own expense. Now I am happy and delighted to print this stuff at my own expense. It’s the ability of organisations to externalise this cost that makes it possible for many more people to get their stuff. But the wonderfully unbounded nature of online dissemination also stops those people from thinking about the reality and cost to their readers of actually printing and reading their work.

Probably back in the olden days when the world wide web was new, people would whip up something that looked great in print, put it online without doing anything else, be underwhelmed by the response and then sit through hours of expensive, off-site design seminars being told that is a totally wrong way to go about online publishing and the reason we can’t have nice things. Now the problem is kind of silly, really. People design documents that look great on a screen, publicise and publish it online, and send out to the home and office printers of the world an offering whose form is so irritating it detracts from the content.

So here is my free, in-your-own-time design seminar about what not to do when you hit ‘upload PDF’ to your website. [click to continue…]

Third Time Lucky for EU and Internet Governance

by Maria on February 12, 2014

This morning, European Commissioner Neelie Kroes released the EU’s long anticipated response to the seismic changes in Internet governance caused by the Snowden revelations. In six hundred words, it throws down the gauntlet at United States over control of the Internet for the third time in fifteen years. This time it just might work.

Last October, the technical bodies that coordinate the Internet released the Montevideo Statement. Implying that trust in the Internet’s American stewardship had been fatally damaged by the Snowden revelations, the I*s (‘i-stars; Internet organisations) called for “the globalization of ICANN and IANA functions, towards an environment in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing” and for the overall improvement of global multi-stakeholder Internet governance.

It was an astonishing development. For the US-born ICANN, ISOC, ARIN and IETF to say the US government’s monopoly of control over the Internet root must end was a break few of us saw coming. It didn’t stop there. Within days, ICANN’s CEO, Fadi Chehade, announced that ICANN and the Brazilian government would organize a meeting in early 2014 to start figuring out how this transfer of control might work.
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Something Changed on the Internet

by Maria on November 19, 2013

It’s only been five weeks since the organisations that manage the Internet’s technical infrastructure dropped the bombshell that they want the oversight of ICANN and IANA to be done by all governments and stakeholders, and not just the US. In a statement made in Montevideo, ICANN, ISOC, the IETF, all the world’s regional Internet registries, the Internet Architecture Board and the World Wide Web Consortium all called out the Snowden revelations as having ‘undermined the trust and confidence’ of users so much that it’s now time to get on and build truly ‘global multi-stakeholder Internet cooperation’.

What does all that mean? Basically, the people who built and run the global Internet no longer trust the US government to be its sole public-interested global steward. Despite a six-month scrum of self-satisfied lobbyists falling over each other to say ‘everyone knew what was going on’ and nothing fundamental has changed since Snowden; everyone only thought they knew what was going on and something fundamental has changed since Snowden.

Whether you think real ethical and legal issues are raised by mass surveillance or that the uproar is just an opportunistic response to one country spying merely too successfully on all the others, it is very clear that the US security services stepped far, far over the line when they took part in IETF technical working groups to purposely undermine the security of the Internet. It’s one thing to play an ‘all’s fair in love and war’ game to exploit networks and business relationships to surveil the population, quite another to knowingly introduce vulnerabilities that your enemies can also exploit. This, and disquiet at how some large US corporations act – forced or willingly – as arms of that state, is the basis of the breach of trust.

You don’t get to invent the Internet, export it around the world as a force for free markets, innovation and human progress, oversee the volunteer organisations that make it work, host the most important companies that deliver and use it, and then say it’s not fair that other countries think you are unfairly exploiting a home advantage. You also don’t get a pass on what Milton Mueller calls out as a strange blindness to the privileged role of your own government when you go around the world proselytising that ‘governments should stay out of running the Internet’.

Before Snowden, Russia’s and China’s paranoia and distrust of Internet freedom as a merely tool of US foreign policy designed to weaken their states could be dismissed as the kind of twisted thinking you expect from authoritarian states that simply can’t imagine not abusing a global common pool resource under their control. That’s how they would behave, so of course they think it’s how we would.

After Snowden, we live in a world where country after country has taken steps to distance itself from the current status quo on who oversees the Internet, and to condemn the US for abusing its role. But neither the US nor its junior partner in electronic surveillance, the UK, has made a concerted public effort to counter the claims of moral equivalence made by our rivals in the battle for Internet control; Russia, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The silence of what are, after all, democratic governments about what legal constraints the UK and US’s spying systems operate within – and how those frameworks can and should be improved – means that rival states are controlling the narrative. Controlling the narrative means getting to decide its ending. Lots of us saw this coming. At a national meeting in September we urged the UK to develop a positive response to its role in global surveillance. Snowden wasn’t even on the agenda. But our governments seemed to slope off to the annual global Internet Governance Forum in Bali with no story to tell about itself, merely the plan to slip a few words in the right ears in the corridors outside public meetings, and to hope for the best.

Meanwhile, the business lobbyists swarmed everywhere repeating the mantra that ‘everyone knew; nothing has changed’, hoping their claim of knowing and worldliness would make anyone who disagreed feel like an ignorant rube, hoping repetition would drown out incredulity. That was both stupid and wrong.

By September, there was a fundamental breach of trust between the US government and the global technical communities, between the US and UK and pretty much every envious middle-income country on earth. But instead of facing up to the problem, the West and its international business community put their fingers in their ears and pretended everything was the same as before, or, at worst, just a little bump on the yellow brick road.

Let’s look at what happens when parts of a powerful institutions go bad and the whole institution ignores, denies and then attacks the accusers; for example, the Catholic Church. First, the people who accused the Church of systematically protecting abusers were written off as kooks. Remember the response to Sinead O’Connor ripping up the picture of the Pope. (Tinfoil hat brigade, anyone? How smoothly those ‘in the know’ transition from laughing at conspiracy theorists to claiming everyone always knew what only paranoids used to claim. But of course we’ve always been at war with Oceania.)

Then came the denials – refusals to cooperate with investigations, claims of special privilege, attacking the victims and accusers and writing them off as ne’er do wells, misfits, the terminally damaged. All that was predictable enough. But the point where the Church really lost its flock – and I’m thinking here specifically of the moment church attendance in Ireland dropped right off the cliff – was when, even though they seemed to be facing up to the need for due process and redress, they just couldn’t fathom the depth of the breach of trust. There was and still is a complete disconnect between what the Church did wrong and what it thinks it did wrong. Many elements of the Church still feel truly hard done by because they fundamentally do not understand why they lost the trust of the people they served. And now it’s too late. People voted with their feet and they’re never coming back.

What the US did to the Internet isn’t the same as the Catholic hierarchy protecting paedophiles, not even remotely. But what is eerily similar is its utter refusal to face up to the fact it they lost the people, it lost the battle, it may just have lost the war.

Getting proxies to run around international meetings saying nothing had changed – and that everyone who thought it had was either knavishly opportunistic or ridiculously naive – was a stupid mistake, a tactical error rooted in an inability to accept that the strategic environment had fundamentally changed. It was a car crash in slow motion. Someone had to do something. Someone did.

More on that anon.

The Chattering Absence of Epistemic Humility

by Maria on November 12, 2013

Of course mine was unplanned. Which goes to show anyone can. Never say never!

Believe me, you don’t want the heartburn, the swollen ankles, the back ache and I swear to God if _ just brushes my nipples again I’ll murder him.

Every cloud has a silver lining.

I never really wanted them myself.

You know, a friend of mine moved to a warmer country and within weeks. Have you ever thought of doing that?

You know, a friend of mine tried for ten years and then they gave up. And then it just happened like that. And they’ve had two more since.

You know, I have a good feeling that it’ll work out for you. I just know it.

If you could just relax a little, you know? Sometimes that’s all it takes.

Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.

Have you thought of trying fertility treatment?

But you’ll be such brilliant parents. You just have to believe it and it’ll come good.

God I know exactly how you feel. We thought my first one was an ectopic until I had the scan.

God I know exactly how you feel. It took us nearly a year for the first. I was sure there was something wrong.

Have you thought about adoption? They’ll let anyone do it these days. Sorry. You know what I mean.

Well at least you have each other.

You’re so lucky. Lie-ins are a thing of the past for us. I haven’t been to the toilet on my own in three years.

Still, there’s always being a god-parent and uncle or aunt. Lucky kids. And you get to give them back when you’ve had enough.

Have you thought of volunteering?

Think of all the holidays you can take. Just the two of you.

My friend went to some clinic and it worked for her. I’ll get the name of it. I’m sure it will work for you.

You’re always hearing of people it worked out for in the end. I’m sure it’ll be the same for you.

Well you know, what with over-population and everything.

Look at the state of them. Are you still sure you want any?

At least you‘ll never have to go through childbirth.

You know I really believe you’ll get there in the end. You just have to stay positive. I know you can.

And here’s the one response that doesn’t cut down to the bone, whatever the situation or experience of the friend / acquaintance / or heavily pregnant lady at the parking permit office who wouldn’t take no for an answer (yes, just this morning):

“I’m so sorry.”

Actually, that’s an unnecessarily coarse title for this post, which is a pointer to a thoughtful, timely and by all accounts superbly executed play about bankers’ role in Ireland’s financial crisis. Journalist documentary-maker Colin Murphy (full disclosure, an old and dear friend) has written a play called ‘Guaranteed. It tries to get to the heart of what the *%$%ing £$%! happened in 2008, using official documents and interviews with insiders. Let’s just say it’s a little more insightful than Michael Lewis’ back of the taxi/fag packet journalism, and goes gratifyingly against the official grain.

‘Guaranteed’ is in Waterford tonight, Dun Laoghaire on Tuesday and Wednesday, then around the country till the 29th.

A palate cleanser afterward might be Colm McCarthy’s recent piece in the Indo, marking the triumvirate of ECB/IMF/EC and their involvement in Ireland’s forced bail-out out of 10. You may be surprised by who scored highest.

To distract attention from having fired one fifth of the army, the Conservative defence secretary Phil Hammond needed something positive, whizzy and modern to tell his party members (average age: 68) at their conference last weekend. What better than to announce how go-ahead Britain is in all things cyber and defence? Well, he went one better, and announced that the UK will soon have the power that dare not speak its name; cyber strike capability.

You see, just as ‘everyone knew’ that the NSA was eavesdropping on all manner of phone and Internet traffic, including that of the US’s supposed allies, everyone also knows that the US, Russia, China, Israel, Iran– and probably North Korea if they can string together some cast-off Lenovo servers with galvanised wire – everyone is developing and has in some manner already deployed the ability to attack other countries’ critical networked infrastructure. It’s just that no one wants to admit to it.
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Some days are better than other days

by Maria on September 17, 2013

Ugh. Some days, no matter how many nice or exciting things happening in my personal and professional life, I just feel that we are all, quite simply, fucked.

As a mini-reward for getting a small work thing into my outbox by 0900, I read Russell Brand’s take on his recent adventure award-ceremony-land, when he reminded GQ that its main sponsor, Hugo Boss, used to do a nice line in Nazi uniforms. What’s that trick fiction writers are supposed to do, to make the day to day seem unfamiliar so you look at it with new eyes? Brand’s description of how it actually feels to be the male mega-star walking through a corridor of identically dressed and posed women-as-ornaments shows how messed up it is that anyone could ever think it normal. And it’s not even cool, just “a vision of what squares imagine cool people might do set on a spaceship”. In this instance, Brand is how you might like to imagine yourself if you were fabulously successful, clear-eyed about exactly how, and both brave and talented enough to write beautifully about it. And honest enough to see it’s not even all that brave to give the two fingers to the suits; it’s just somewhat unusual.

“I could see the room dividing as I spoke. I could hear the laughter of some and louder still silence of others. I realised that for some people this was regarded as an event with import. The magazine, the sponsors and some of those in attendance saw it as a kind of ceremony that warranted respect. In effect, it is a corporate ritual, an alliance between a media organisation, GQ, and a commercial entity, Hugo Boss. What dawned on me as the night went on is that even in apparently frivolous conditions the establishment asserts control, and won’t tolerate having that assertion challenged, even flippantly, by that most beautifully adept tool: comedy
.”

Walking up Oxford Street around noon, I saw an angry white man trying to pick a fight with a woman in hijab, and a white woman getting onto him for it. At least that’s how I interpreted the scene. A couple of minutes later, as I sat at my bus stop, the white woman came up to check which buses went from it, and the man followed, abusing her with various disgusting and shouted remarks about her appearance and how she shouldn’t dare to be out. I glared at him and made to get up and intervene, and he walked away. But with today’s Sun newspaper’s front page launching its campaign to ban Muslim women from wearing veils in schools, courts, hospitals, banks, airports and other ‘secure places’, but offering to ‘let’ them continue to be veiled in parks and on streets, I’m not surprised this particular bully feels he has a license to abuse and threaten women on Britain’s biggest shopping street.

On the bus home, I cracked open Colin Crouch’s Post-Democracy, feeling sick at the thought that it’s a long and useless decade ago that he wrote:

“… in most of the industrialized world (that), whatever the party identity of the government, there was steady, consistent pressure for state policy to favour the interests of the wealthy – those who benefited from the unrestricted operation of the capitalist economy rather than those who needed some protection from it.”

The book is about how politics is no longer shaped in pro-democratic ways by an organised and engaged working class, among other factors, but is returning to its pre-twentieth century norm of being “something to serve the interests of various sections of the privileged.”

Having just witnessed what I’d guess from his accent was a working class Glaswegian man using a public space to target his presumed enemy, a woman from a minority religion, I couldn’t help feeling that we – the leftists, the progressives, or anyone who gives a political damn about more than their own venal and narrow economic interests – we’ve lost, we’ll continue losing in ever more – and then ever less – outrageous ways, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

But at least it will be entertaining, eh?

Back home, I spotted Cory Doctorow’s take on the Sultan of Brunei’s little brother who has blown almost fifteen billion dollars on tat. (Why, by the way, do the .1% have such awful taste in music? If you could rent almost any musician for a private show, would you really pick Rod Stewart?) Lest anyone think oiligarchs have absolutely anything to offer the rest of us, politically or culturally, we are reminded that;

“It’s a kind of pornography of capitalism, a Southeast Asian version of the Beverly Hillbillies, a proof that oil fortunes demand no thought, no innovation, no sense of shared national destiny: just a hole the ground, surrounded by guns, enriching an elite of oafs and wastrels.”

I’m not saying our crowd don’t have the best songs. And we for sure have the best writers and comedians. But we’re still losing and we will keep losing, while amusing ourselves to death.

Seamus Heaney

by Maria on August 30, 2013

Seamus Heaney has died. He once said that poetry doesn’t change things, but can alter how we think and feel about them. He was a poet of all of Ireland, and a man who lived and spoke for our kindest and least sentimental selves.

In the days before everyone had Internet, I was working for a tv production company called Hummingbird. One day I was tracking down the source of an obscure couplet of Irish poetry. My boss, Philip King, handed me a phone number and said ‘Call Seamus Heaney. He’ll know it’. Heaney had only won the Nobel a few months before. I called, embarrassed to be troubling a Great Man. He picked up after a few rings, patiently listened while I recited the lines, thought for a moment and gave the answer. I wish I could remember who the poet was. Heaney was warm and generous that day, just as he was a few years later when my sister Nickie approached him, similarly starstruck, in Waterstones on Dawson Street.

All my books are in storage so I can’t find the poem I want. It’s about washing up after Sunday lunch, and reading it always brings me back to our old family home in Cashel. Everyone talks about writers finding the universal in the particular, but Heaney did it better than most. Anyway, here’s this:

Now it’s high watermark
and floodtide in the heart
and time to go.
The sea-nymphs in the spray
will be the chorus now.
What’s left to say?

Suspect too much sweet-talk
but never close your mind.
It was a fortunate wind
that blew me here. I leave
half-ready to believe
that a crippled trust might walk

and the half-true rhyme is love.

Hit or Run

by Maria on August 23, 2013

To boxercise or to jog, that is the question. After a couple of months of forced inactivity, I’m back to pursuing some sort of mid-life, peripatetic aspirational fitness programme. Not for me the triathlons and ironmen of Quiggin. We can’t all be uber-achievers in every aspect of life. But for some reason – probably a recent move away from the beaches of Bournemouth into the centre of London – jogging palls. At least I think it does. I haven’t broken into a trot since early June, except to chase buses. And anyway, I increasingly feel the need to de-compact my lower back and do some activity that recognises I also have upper limbs. So I’m trying out new things.

First off, reformer pilates. The one with the table or platform on a little dolly and ropes or bands to pull on. It’s basically just posh resistance training. I first heard of it in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. The man has a genius for spotting the little sub-cultural phenomena of today that act out his famous maxim of the future being here already, just unevenly distributed. Cayce Pollard’s natural habitat is a culturally rarefied world that’s so bleeding edge, she is a cool-hunter (remember when that was a thing?) who is far to cool to ever use that term. Anyway, she gets to London horribly jet-lagged – I think it was this book when Gibson said jetlag is the feeling of lack you have while waiting for your soul to catch up after a long piece of airplane travel – and does this weird exercise I couldn’t even visualise, involving a table and pulleys and a kind of deep, highly specialised procedural knowledge that beautifully illustrated her character. So I did a class of this on Wednesday, at the less than half price introductory offer of eleven pounds and fifty pence. [click to continue…]

Trust Us

by Maria on August 18, 2013

The Guardian reports that David Miranda, the partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald, was held at Heathrow all day today under schedule 7 of the 2000 Terrorism Act. Miranda was held for the longest time allowable, nine hours, and released without charge and also without all his consumer electronics.

It’s hard to believe that the UK authorities sincerely believe Miranda, who was transiting through Heathrow, is a bona fide terrorism threat. Greenwald, the journalist who broke the Edward Snowden story, has interpreted his partner’s detention as an act of intimidation or retaliation. It may also be a simple fishing expedition to seize information about third parties such as the documentary-maker Miranda had traveled to Berlin to meet. What, if any, connection these journalists may have to terrorism remains to be seen.

I remember quite vividly when the 2000 Terrorism Act was passed. Although it pre-dated post-September 11 power grabs such as the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act, the 2000 legislation was criticised for being loosely drafted and open to the unaccountable abuse of state power. Section 7 is for use only in ports, airports and similar transit zones, and the authorities do not need to have any reasonable suspicion of wrong-doing to invoke it. Those detained have no recourse to legal representation but their refusal to answer questions can be prosecuted as an offense. This law drives a coach and horses through an individual’s right not to be arbitrarily detained or have their belongings confiscated, and the right – conditional in the UK in any case – to silence.

At the time it was passed, the Home Office made the usual airy claims that the Terrorism Act would not be abused. And at the time, campaigners insisted that these claims were not worth the paper they were not written on. The Act itself doesn’t require the government to give any justification for today’s detention, but if the UK border authorities want to clear their name of abuse of state power against individuals a foreign government, the United States, is angry with, they should speak up now.