Derision and splitters

Much has been made this week of the decision by some members of the Liberal Democrats to form a pressure group within the party. I started by writing “another” but at the moment there is only really one formally established, the Social Liberal Forum. Liberal Left sees itself as representing the disenfranchised whose views are not being listened to by the leadership and those in Government. A counterweight to that amorphous and informal more classically liberal segment within the party described pejoratively as “Orange Bookers”.

Internal debate is very healthy, and it would be good if that was happening. Instead there is sniping from all sides of the debate. A rather unhealthy desire to hound them out, in much the same way that those of us in the more classical mould have been subject to at times ourselves. That’s not productive.

I see two aspects that concern me. The first is that the protagonists saw fit to establish a second identity to the economic left of the party, rather than seek to exploit the already established SLF. Might we conclude that they weren’t able to garner sufficient support from within that bloc? In which case can they truly be said to represent the majority of LDs, as they claim?

A more significant concern is the conflation of “ends” and “means”, with an effort to claim ownership of the preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution because of a disagreement over the means by which that constitution is delivered.

The words are familiar, they’re printed on our membership card:

“…safeguard a fair, free and open society…liberty, equality and community…no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”

My objection is that the protagonists of Liberal Left are asserting that those they disagree with have abandoned those principles because we advocate a different route to achieving them. Some of the policies they advocate seem to me to be likely to deliver outcomes very different from those we seek.

They disagree with our coalition. That’s fine, I’m not too keen on our partners, but I’d have been less keen on the alternatives. For a party that advocates pluralism and has a history of coalition at the local level I find it disturbing that we can’t cope with the tensions that it presents magnified at the national level. Essentially coalition is only acceptable if it takes one form, disappointing.

It maybe that there is an unreconcilable difference of opinion that goes far beyond the desired ends, but I’ve yet to see a convincing argument that indicates that and has sufficient support from any area in the debate

That said I’m somewhat confused by how an enthusiasm to embrace the statist authoritarians of Labour, and the interventionist Socialists of the Green Party helps us deliver that liberty, equality or community and avoid enslavement by conformity.

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A few useful tools

Now that I’ve very firmly demobilised following my sojourn to Afghanistan I’ve been doing some thinking about where to take this blog. It ended up not really having a theme as such, just some waffle about things that took my fancy. I’m not sure that I can sustain something that has a single theme, so I’m going to try to post and see how it goes.

As a gentle warm up it might be useful to think about some tools that I’ve been playing with lately. Some of them useful for this sort of thing, some less so.

The first to talk about is a reasonably recent service; Storify. This is a curation service, allowing the user to draw together material from a range of sources and put together a coherent narrative. It takes material from a range of different services, Twitter, Youtube and Flickr for example but also allows individual URLs to be drawn in. It then presents the story either on the Storify site or in an embedded format on services such as WordPress. Storify is a really powerful tool, but it has one big weakness as a relatively casual user. It assumes that one is accessing it through a browser. There is no mobile app, and at present few of the other useful apps easily direct material to the service.

The main workhorse is Google Reader, what has become the dominant RSS service both user facing and as an underlying engine for other services. I consume a lot of news and RSS is the way to do that quickly and easily. It’s reasonably simple to send links to individual articles either from the Reader interface or other services that use it. Recent changes have reduced it’s usefulness, trying to lock the user into the Google+ empire, but it still serves a useful purpose.

Moving on to Evernote, the ubiquitous capture tool. Essentially a service that allows the user to send links, text, images and a host of other data to, that then becomes searchable. It’s useful for capturing ideas, and supporting information. This one has a range of different ways to sort and manage the material so suits many different ways of thinking.

Those are the main tools, others would be Dropbox for online file storage, Flickr for imagery and inevitably Twitter to keep track of ongoing discussion.

All in all it’s just a question of exploring the tools available and working out what works for the individual.

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Pen-Ion Heather Honey Ale

A bottle conditioned traditional ale with a warm amber colouring and a light natural aeration. At 4.2% a pleasant strength.

Served chilled to below cellar temperature the bottle instructions suggest decanting before serving. Straight from the bottle gives very little sediment and a very gentle head.


The sweetness of honey is strongest on the nose with only a slight hint of heather coming through. The first mouthful is rich with a thick texture permeated with a sharp gassiness. Rather sweet it’s more reminiscent of a summer ale as its slightly lacking in hops or nuttiness and seems to vanish quickly from the palate.

All in all a very pleasant bottle, probably suiting white meat, fish or hard cheeses.

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Appreciating that I’ve already been very quiet for a while I should probably state that whilst I’m in Afghanistan I’ve been blogging at in an effort to keep my military stuff apart from my more generalised ranting about how we have the tyranny of the majority imposed on us in the UK




Feel free to join me over there, if you haven’t already seen it.

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Protests and a lack of moral courage from students, who knew…

Yesterdays vandalism and thuggery reported in the Telegraph this morning.

Interesting that they chose not to contextualise the photo they used, which in other sources appears to show a group of schoolkids surrounding the van and shielding it, although given the damage whether that was a useful move or not is debatable.  Pretty shoddy journalism, but that typifies the coverage yesterday across the media.

Still, protesters complaining that they were going to miss transport home, and they’d be late for tea do suggest a lack of forethought.  If one is unprepared to deal with the consequences one shouldn’t participate in the protest.

I’m also interested in the latter part of the article, students trying to lay blame for the violence on truanting children.  Lack of moral courage springs to mind as the immediate response, again take responsibility for ones actions.  But I guess that’s not the point of the protests, they’re not wanting to take responsibility for their own lives, they want the state to provide, yet not compensate the state for the benefits received.

Still, one hopes that the schoolchildren are punished for their non-attendance at school.

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Quality of life, suffering and decisions

We have a cat.  He’s fifteen years old and has a lovely relaxed nature.  He loves being fussed, and sunning himself.  He’s a lot slower now than he used to be, but even in the spring he was able to catch a bird in the garden, and until last year was fairly regularly bringing the odd mouse in.

Palin relaxing

He’s not well, hasn’t been eating and when he does he’s sick very quickly.  We’re treating that medically but it really looks as if that’s not having any significant effect.  It’s possible a surgical intervention might have an effect, but at his age there are big risks around giving him a general anaesthetic. He’s listless and clearly in pain, but still walking around, making his way up and down the stairs, and responding to being talked to or fussed.

We have a decision to make, and at the moment that decision is when we take him on his final journey to the vet.  There is a possibility that his heart will give out before we do that, and in some ways that would be best for him, as he hates being in the car.

As a Buddhist, it’s a difficult decision to make: the taking of life, or being responsible for the taking of life, is itself something that one should avoid.  I tend to take a western view of these principles though; rather than the fairly simple ”reincarnation” concept, lifetime to lifetime, we experience our world moment to moment.  Each of our experiences is the moment of rebirth, influenced by what has gone before.  That has parallels with modern thinking around physics at both the macro and micro scales.

So what is my intent around this life that I have had some influence over?  He looks to us for food and shelter, although he’s demonstrated himself capable of doing both for himself over his life.  I do feel some responsibility for him now, perhaps there was something that I missed and we could have had some form of intervention, whether medical or surgical, earlier.  Perhaps that would have given him a little longer.  It would be easy to play virtual histories, I don’t know now whether we could have done anything, or perhaps an intervention would have brought this moment forward.

The intent is to find the point where his quality of life isn’t sufficient, to find a point where his pain makes him more miserable.  With one of my pet rats I left it too long, and she suffered to assuage my guilt about taking her to the vet.  Again as a Buddhist, I know the effect the choice will have on me; I carry that forward into my next moments, each of which become an aggregate of our decisions and choices, the interplay between them.

I am very glad that it is a decision that we are able to make. We’re driven to think about his quality of life, not his length of life.  As an animal, the end of his suffering has more dignity than a human.

I compare the way we treat pets with the inhumane way we deal with people suffering in similar ways.  Friends have died of cancer, with the associated loss of dignity as they approach their final weeks; friends and family who suffer dementia with an ever increasing reliance on others for help with the most basic of functions.  In the former case there is an opportunity to make a choice, in the latter the opportunity for choice is long gone and with it one’s dignity as  human.

In a liberal society, surely the individual should have a choice over their end of life?  The ability to identify the conditions of the choice, and what triggers should be put in place for others to act if that choice cannot be exercised.

I’m conscious that I’m exposing a dichotomy: our cat is unable to make the choice, so we do, yet I want the same opportunity for myself.  We can’t speculate as to whether a pet would make the choice, and communicate it to us should he have the language.  They communicate with us, but they don’t have the cognitive abilities to make that decision.  They clearly make choices, but they’ve learned the consequences of these through experience.  We can make the decision for ourselves, we know the consequences of ending our life, we should be allowed to do so.

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On transparency in government expenditure

We hear today that Department for Communities and Local Government have published ”details” of all spending above £500.  The Minister responsible for the department, Eric Pickles, claiming that this move will encourage an ”army of armchair auditors” to examine the spending and hold his department to account.  It also allows him to apply pressure to local authorities to do similar.

Whilst openness in general is a fair aspiration I have some concerns about the impact, particularly where the openness isn’t thought through.  There are some risks about the effect on future competition, but the market should adapt to that and while it may cause difficulties in the short term the effect should settle down.  The intent is to open up the market to Small and Medium sized Enterprises, but by exposing their commercial arrangements to larger competitors it could have the opposite effect.  That’s both a risk and an opportunity for anyone in the market, so we’ll see what happens.

My main issue with this headlong rush into transparency is the half baked way that it’s being done.  What we’re seeing from DCLG is little more than the amount, the supplier and the dates.  There is no supporting detail that allows this to become useful, and indeed there is no clarity around what the money was spent on.  I’m sure that some judicious use of Freedom of Information Act requests would flush out some detail, but that ends up costing money itself, and in FOIA-land the question asked very much defines the response received, if one is received at all.  What the release doesn’t give us is detail around the service, whether what was paid for that service was in any way discounted, what comparisons to other alternative suppliers may have been made, what route was used to source the service,what the rationale for the expenditure was in the first place.  As an example £1359 spent at Manchester United might just be for the a conference room and catering, the fact that Manchester United is the service provider may be tangential.

There is plenty fodder in the release for media outrage, foaming at the mouth about Jazz workshops and trips to Blackpool, but there is a lot of potentially useful material that Mr Pickles’ reliance on his armchair auditors won’t really allow.  DCLG spent a reasonable amount of Money on hotels, the Telegraph picks out a couple in London, again this may have been for conference facilities, indicating possibly one of two things; there aren’t enough conference facilities in the government estate to meet the demand, or that the conference facilities that do exist are expensive in comparison to private sector provision in London.  The extensive facilities in The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in Victoria Street charge other departments at market rates, and might be driving this behaviour.  On the other hand it could quite easily be questionable use of public funds for accommodation, but with the information to hand, we can’t know that.

Apparently the department spent £3670 with Halfords, again one wonders what that was for?  Halfords are one of the service providers for the Cycle to Work scheme where the employer acts as an intermediary, buying bikes that employees then pay for through salary sacrifice.  So the department could easily have recovered all of that money anyway.

So, nice try, more effort required from Mr Pickles and his colleagues in Cabinet.  Rather than rushing headlong perhaps a little thought and preparation would have been a useful exercise.  Similarly a lot of this data is of limited value in isolation, we need to see the same information, in meaningful formats, from all departments.  And we need to see ”why” the money was spent, not just how much and where.

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