Badly Bred

For some years now, I’ve holidayed, self-catering, in Italy. The first time, in 2002, I was in the centre of Florence for ten days, and mostly ate out and only bought a few basics for home-cooking. But as time has gone on I’ve become more self-reliant.

Although I confess that I usually use self-service supermarkets rather than shops where you have to ask for what you want. Somehow, my Italian seems to evaporate under pressure. So I tour the shelves and fill a trolley or a basket, and when I get to the checkout, all I have to do is hand over the money or card.

I do always have the nagging feeling that my choice of goods marks me out as a foreigner, but then I have that same feeling in a supermarket at home.

Italian supermarkets, as you might expect, tend to have a different and better range of goods than your Tesco or Sainsbury’s. More, higher-quality fruit and vegetables, for example. Lots of cheeses. Premium olive oil. Local wines.

But they also sell a lot of crap. It’s Italy’s guilty secret perhaps; they’re famed for love of good food, but they also have big industries making mass-produced, “convenience” foods.

That’s what’s mostly promoted in television advertising as well, and one of the prominent names is ‘Mulino Bianco’ — White Mill — part of the huge Barilla group. There’s a large range of Mulino Bianco products: cakes, biscuits, bread and crackers; that sort of thing. I hadn’t seen any outside Italy until recently, when I came upon “Focaccelle” on the bargain shelf of Tesco in Craigavon.
Mulino Bianco
They were reduced to a fraction of their former price because they were approaching their “best-before” date, but here’s the thing: I know that Mulino Bianco products don’t go off or get mouldy because they aren’t real food. All artificial. And anyway, “focaccelle” isn’t even a real word. It’s supposed to make you think of “focaccia” and that’s what the product vaguely resembles.

Yes, I did try them. It was only a few pence, and I was certain that they wouldn’t be disgusting, just doughy and bland. And so they were.

But I had forgotten that I should not have bought anything made by a Barilla company. In 2013, Guido Barilla, chairman of the company, made some stupid, prejudiced and offensive remarks about gay families. And then issued a “clairification” which simply dug himself deeper into the hole. Some people in Italy advocated a boycott, and Barilla’s competitor Bertolli began to advertise “Bertolli welcomes everyone, especially those with an empty stomach”.


Floating Voter


I’ve voted in every election I’ve been eligible for since I came of age. I don’t quite know how many that would have been, but maybe twenty to thirty.

And I’ve NEVER voted for a candidate who was elected. I think that’s because I genuinely vote by conscience in that I choose the candidate whose views or whose party policies most closely coincide with my own. My own opinions obviously are very unpopular: democracy, justice and equality.

Well, to be honest, once I voted “tactically”. I voted for David Trimble, UUP First Minister of Northern Ireland, who was at risk of losing his Westminster seat to the more extreme DUP. I had some sympathy for Trimble, who had struggled to get his party to vote to give him a mandate for negotiating power-sharing in Northern Ireland. (In contrast, the DUP — like their opponents/partners Sinn Féin — don’t have to bother getting formal membership approval. The party leaders do what they like.) Trimble was defeated and lost his seat as MP.

One one other occasion, I “spoiled” my ballot paper by drawing on an extra box at the bottom and writing “None of the above” in it. That was when the only candidates in my constituency were from the four main sectarian parties (SF, SDLP, DUP & UUP) in Northern Ireland.

I call those parties “sectarian” and won’t be voting for them based on the fact that each has a non-negotiable policy on the future status of Northern Ireland. I realise that, technically, that isn’t the same as being sectarian, but in the context of Northern Ireland, it certainly is, and the parties gleefully exploit it. Hence the previous election pacts between the UUP and DUP, pursuing sectarianism and relegating actual policy differences to insignificance. SF wanted similar pacts with the SDLP, which rejected the approaches, to the party’s credit.

I could vote for the non-sectarian Alliance Party, but I find their economic and social values too right-wing. They also allow members to vote against party policy by “conscience” without sanction, and these issues tend to be about gay rights and other equality matters which mean something to me.

In the upcoming election, that leaves me with Greens, the Northern Ireland Labour Representation Committee, and Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol. While the last is undoubtedly true, I don’t think a single-issue party is for me. Even if they remember to turn up.

I’d probably vote for a Corbynista Labour candidate if one was allowed to stand, and hence the “Northern Ireland Labour Representation Committee” — candidates who support Labour, but want the party’s Northern Ireland ban to be abolished. Is that also a single-issue party? Although they do come out against Tory “austerity” (“austerity” means “economic illiteracy”.)

I agree with the Green Party about a lot. They’re anti-austerity, pro-democracy, pro-people, pro-choice, pro-queer and pro-environment. Though I think the party’s opposition to fracking is childish and uninformed, based largely on shit off the internet. I oppose fracking too, but because it’s a fossil fuel, even if it’s a far less harmful fossil fuel than coal or oil. Lurid fears of contamination are not something I share, but regardless, the investment should be in renewables instead.

Where does that leave me? 1 & 2 preference votes are going to have to be the two parties last-mentioned. I’ll see on Thursday how I feel.

Trust Us, We’re the Government

The Transportation Security Administration in the USA licenses two companies to design luggage locks which can be opened without damage by TSA agents if they need to search a case. The TSA has a set of master keys — the correct one to use should be indicated on the lock, for example, saying “TSA002”. If the agents need to open a case which has an unapproved lock, they will break in.

I have no idea how many master keys have been issued, but they are in use at 450 airports, so the number must be in the thousands. And are all TSA employees so well-rewarded and motivated that they are incorruptible? No.

TSA-lockTherefore, I imagine that professional criminals got copies of the keys as soon as they were issued, if not before. But then the Washington Post innocently published a photo of the master keys, which allowed smart amateurs to code up a 3-D printer file. You can now download it and print your own, working, master keys.

Now, anyone with an interest in security would have predicted this exact outcome when the idea of a “secret” key for everyone’s baggage was suggested. A security mechanism with a “back door” which can be opened by officials can always be opened by criminals too.

And guess what the security agencies are always asking for? A “back door” into secure computer products. Of course, they say, access would only be granted to highly-trusted officials. Nobody else would know the secret codes. Absolutely not.

The lock on your luggage is supposed to prevent the contents being stolen, or at least, to keep them private. (One TSA agent was sacked after he left a note in a passenger’s suitcase, congratulating her on her ‘sexy” underwear.) The little lock icon in your browser’s address bar indicates the same purpose: you can reduce the risk of criminals stealing from you, and you can keep your browsing private.

For some people, it’s more than that, a matter of life and death. If you lived in, say, Saudi Arabia, you would really, really want your communications to be secure. They crucify or behead bloggers there.

Every time the CIA or GCHQ or the like try to lobby politicians, asking for back doors to be made legally compulsory, security experts point out the stupidity of the idea, and the weakness of the argument in favour of them, which usually amounts to “Wooo! Terrorists!”. Just the other day, the French government responded to their spooks to say that back doors were out of the question. But they always come back.

In the UK, there’s a new government-approved standard — Secure Chorus — for voice encryption. And guess what: it doesn’t so much have a back door as a gigantic back hangar door that you could fly a jumbo jet through. It’s not compulsory though. Yet.

Traditional intelligence and policing work is hard. It can work, but it needs time, manpower and loads of money. The intelligence agencies will keep asking for back doors because they think it would make their job easier. Collateral damage to citizens is not a consideration. Just look at the tens of thousands of thefts per year in American airport baggage handling.

Who Am I?

I wanted on line access to my income tax records, so I had to register with a commercial identity verification service. Of the ones in the scheme, I chose the good old Post Office, because Prime Minister Corbyn is going to re-nationalise it, as in civilized countries like France and Germany.

The Post Office web-based process is simplest, because you only need to prove you have a mobile phone (for two-factor authentication); a credit or debit card in your own name; a passport; and a UK driving licence. For the banking bit, they charge 0p to the card to ensure that it exists, but for the passport and driving licence, they can look them up in the government databases.

Except they can’t. The system doesn’t accept a licence issued in Northern Ireland, although it looks as though they might have thought about it: there’s an “Issuer” field, but it’s disabled.

qrcode.annaghvarnPlan B, then, was to use the Post Office Android app. It worked, but it all seemed… odd. First, you use the app to read a QR code which the website shows you. Then, the app brings up a camera window, which you use to photograph your passport. Finally, another camera with a head-and-shoulders outline, which you use to frame a selfie. Or two, rather, because it wants you to move in a three-dimensional manner between shots to prove you aren’t a flat photograph.

Then it uploads the results, and some humans (probably) in an office somewhere try to read your passport details and compare the selfie with the passport photo. Mine failed the first time because the passport image wasn’t good enough. Passports won’t sit flat, so the next time I put it under a sheet of glass.

With the app, you only need the passport, not the driving licence, because it’s a “more secure” process. Hmmm. Maybe.

Nation Status

I was in Barcelona for a few days recently, my first visit. It’s an exciting and vibrant city, full of culture and history; and rich in facilities and activities for the many tourists.

Signs and notices are usually in both Catalan and (Castilian) Spanish, and often in English too, for tourist purposes. Being interested in languages, and unfamiliar with Catalan, I was intrigued with its differences and similarities compared to other languages. Some words are like their Spanish equivalent, but others are like the French and others like the Italian. (I don’t know any Portuguese, but I’ll bet there are parallels there too.)

Catalan is treated as the first of the two official languages in the region, a reflection of Catalan nationalism, and I saw lots of examples of “l’Estelada”, the pro-independence flag, on apartment balconies and elsewhere.

Fine. Why not? If they want independence, why can’t they have it? After all, there was a referendum or something.

Coat of Arms of CataloniaBut I got to thinking. I’m generally an anti-nationalist, because nationalism is always based on myths about history, ethnicity and identity, generally with right-wing flavouring and a dash of xenophobia. The whole idea is “WE are not like THEM” and that’s always flat wrong. Really, we’re all alike. Fascists love nationalism, of course. It’s a great tool for persuading people to do as they’re told.

I grew up in Northern Ireland, and became utterly disillusioned with all forms of nationalism at an early age after witnessing its effects. I have absolutely zero emotional attachment to either a “British” or “Irish” identity, and I think that an avid devotion to either is a sign of inadequate personal development. Meaning in life should come from within, not from an imaginary relationship with thousands of people you’ve never met.

So why didn’t I instinctively group Catalan nationalists with the bigots I knew from home? Why did Catalan nationalism seem benign? In one word: ignorance. Mine, that is. I had no idea that opinion in the region is split roughly equally between those who favour independence from Spain and those who oppose it; and I still have little understanding of the issues which are argued.

I’ll try to learn my lesson and not assume that everyone else’s nationalism is harmless, although, of course, it might be. I’ll remember my ignorance and not rush to judgements. And watch out for fascists.

Without a Paddle

“Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of madness.” Words along those lines are often attributed to Einstein, but then the internet is awash with things he didn’t say. Him and the Dalai Lama.

Anyway, the Labour party had a disastrous time in the UK’s 2015 general election. Since the party had won three successive elections since 1997 under Tony Blair, some people in the party believe that the way to win elections is to be more Blair-like. That is, more right-wing.

That’s based on a fundamental misunderstanding of history. In 1997, John Major’s incumbent Conservative government was in disarray, widely considered to be corrupt and incompetent. Major himself was derided as weak and foolish. By the time of the election, many moderate Conservatives had lost faith in the party and were ripe for poaching.

I say “many”. But because of the UK’s peculiar first-past-the-post voting system, small swings in electoral support cause big changes in the representation in parliament. The Conservative share of the total vote fell from about 42% to 31% compared to the previous election, while Labour’s share grew from 34% to 43%.

If we accept the one-dimensional model of political allegiance, we might guess that Blair’s right-wing “New Labour” successfully attracted the votes of some disillusioned Conservatives, while retaining the majority of its traditional centre-left support.

By 2001, at the next general election, the Conservative party was in better shape — slightly — but the new leader William Hague was doing little to improve their electability. Blair’s New Labour won again, with a share of the vote only slightly down from 43% to 41%. But the real headline news of the election was the drop in turnout. In 1997, 71% of voters had participated. In 2001, it was only 59%.

What was happening? A general lack of faith in the political system? In politicians? Whatever it was, Tony Blair carried on doing what he was doing, even though his personal popularity was in decline. His decision to involve the UK in the Iraq war of 2003 was controversial and unpopular, particularly among long-standing Labour supporters. At the next general election, Labour’s share of the vote had declined again, from 41% to 35% and the turnout was only a little up, at 61%.

By the next election in 2010, the Conservative party had been under the leadership of David Cameron for five years. Cameron had worked to modernise his party and to some degree had managed to suppress the “swivel-eyed loon” faction. In contrast, Gordon Brown had become leader of the Labour party (and hence Prime Minister) but had little charisma and low popularity. His policies continued to follow the right-wing New Labour line.

Labour leadership candidates 2015There had been a huge global economic crash under Brown (first as Chancellor and then as Prime Minister) which had been caused by financial institutions trading recklessly in risky debt. The bankers had believed that their clever financial products protected them from risk, even though that was mathematically impossible. The crash was inevitable, but in spite of the clear evidence of bankers’ incompetence, the Conservatives claimed that the Labour government were to blame. (And have continued to do so.)

So Labour’s share of the vote declined again, from 35% to 29%, while the Conservatives became the largest party in parliament, having gained 36% of the vote. They didn’t have a majority, but formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. (The latter had 23% of the vote, a modern record for them, but only 8% of parliamentary seats, again a quirk of the first-past-the-post system.)

The new government proceeded to inflict “austerity” on the nation. That is, reducing government expenditure and cutting taxes. In effect, a strategy of “trickle-up economics”, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The argument for “austerity” is that it is required in order for the government to balance its books and not get into debt. In fact, it actually depresses the economy and reduces government income from taxation, making the debt problem worse. Few economists think that “austerity” is a smart idea. I suspect that even Conservatives don’t buy the logic of it, but they like the result: lower taxes for the rich.

You’d think then that by 2015 and the latest general election, the Labour party would be ideally positioned to inspire the electorate to reject austerity and vote for prosperity. After all, millions of people were financially worse-off after five years under the coalition government. But that wasn’t the approach the party took. Instead, the party leaders decided to campaign on the basis of “nice” austerity. Conservative austerity, but not being quite so nasty to the poor and disadvantaged.

It didn’t work. Admittedly, the Labour party’s share of the vote increased from 29% to 30%, but they lost 26 parliamentary seats. The Conservatives increased their share of the vote too, to 37%, and gained enough seats in parliament to have a small majority. The most sensational results, though, were the gains by the Scottish National Party, and the losses by the Liberal Democrats. In almost mirror fashion, the LibDems went from 56 seats to 8, while the SNP went from 6 to 56, but the causes were probably not exactly the same.

Traditional Liberal Democrat supporters probably deserted the party because of its part in the coalition government. The party leaders argued that their presence in government had “moderated” Conservative policies, again trying to make austerity “nicer”.

The situation in Scotland was more complex. Labour and Conservatives had campaigned against independence for Scotland in the 2014 referendum, which reinforced the impression that they were indistinguishable. I also suspect that Scots who had voted against independence on the basis of promises for more devolved powers were feeling betrayed when the new devolution proposals fell short of what they believed had been offered.

But the SNP also offered a clear, socialist, anti-austerity message. The result was their landslide, and 50% of the vote in Scotland. A party which could reproduce that result across the UK would end up with a huge majority in Parliament.

The Labour party has a choice now. Continue doing the same thing over and over; or adapt to the politics of 2015.


Whatever the actual text of the referendum, the Greek people were voting on “austerity”, and rejected it. Greeks are probably the best-placed in Europe to judge the merits of “austerity”, given that they have suffered its full effects under previous governments.

And apart from the misery for the individual, especially the unemployed, the disabled, the sick, the young and the elderly; the Greeks have seen that “austerity” damages the economy and reduces government income, making it less likely that the government can repay its debts.

NO“Austerity” has little support among economists. In fact, even right-wing economists who previously favoured the idea are now claiming that they were misunderstood, misquoted, never said such a thing. You can’t get more concrete proof of an embarrassing wrong turn than that.

The people who are still plugging “austerity” are right-wing politicians, and, worse, unelected right-wing technocrats, and the idea with Greece was to force an elected government to adopt policies which it knew didn’t work. With the clear evidence of recent Greek history (and the UK: slowest recovery of the largest EU nations) I wonder why they stick to it.

The cynical answer is that “austerity” simply represents a rolling back of the welfare state, that vile communist idea that a country should care for all its people. The right-wingers would prefer that inequality of wealth is maintained and enhanced.

It’s not just fairness that demands that the rich should pay their share. It’s common sense too, if you look to the statistics which show that more equal countries are more successful.

And so with “austerity”. Superficially, it might look attractive to the wealthy and their political cronies, but it doesn’t work, and everyone ends up worse off.