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Sunday, May 01, 2016

New technology I will not touch with a barge pole

I wear glasses. I have never worn contact lenses and am not likely to do so. The thought of putting something in my eye fills me with dread. I am sure that others feel the same. There are exceptions of course but I would guess that this feeling is going to be a significant barrier to Google's latest wheeze.

The Independent reports that the internet giant is working on a computer that can be injected into people’s eyeballs. They say that a new patent filing shows plans for a device that would stick into people’s eyes and correct their sight, but also provide extra powers. The injectable machine would be put just behind the visible part of the eye, focusing light so that it can correct poor vision.

Correcting poor vision is one thing, but having a device inserted into one's eye that will also include storage, a radio and lenses and which be powered by an energy-gathering antenna is a lot more disturbing. The antenna would allow the eye-based computer to connect to another device outside of the eye that would help it process information.

Perhaps I have seen too much science fiction and that is making me paranoid about this sort of technology. Whatever, they aint putting it in my eye.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Has Labour's anti-semitism row put Corbyn's leadership in jeopardy?

With unrest growing within the Labour Party as the anti-semitism row seemingly spirals out of control the party's leadership seems powerless to rein it in.

The Telegraph speculates that the upheaval has led members of Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet to hold talks with MPs about a leadership challenge.

They say that senior figures in the party are now so concerned about the row costing the party hundreds of seats at next week's local elections that they are openly discussing the possibility of an attempted coup following the EU referendum:

Tom Watson, the deputy Labour leader, on Friday conceded that the party needs to “get a grip” on anti-Semitism, despite Mr Corbyn insisting there is “no crisis” and “no problem” with the issue.

There were also signs of a growing split between Mr Corbyn and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, who Labour insiders last night said “wants Jeremy’s job”.

As the crisis in Mr Corbyn's inner circle deepened, there were also claims that Anneliese Midgley, Mr Corbyn's deputy chief of staff, quit in protest at his handling of the row.

It was also alleged that Simon Fletcher, the Labour leader’s chief of staff, is being edged out following repeated clashes with Seumas Milne, Mr Corbyn’s controversial director of communications.

No wonder Welsh Labour are trying to distance themselves from the whole shambles.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Corbyn told to stay away from Wales as anti-semitism row rages

Welsh Tories have taken every opportunity during this Welsh Assembly campaign to describe Wales' biggest political party as 'Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party'. That decision looks to have paid off today as a scheduled visit to Wales by the Labour leader was cancelled. allegedly because he was asked to stay away.

The Western Mail reports that Mr Corbyn was due to visit Bridgend College in Pencoed with First Minister, Carwyn Jones, but it was agreed he would stay out of Wales after discussions between his team and Welsh Labour officials.

The paper says that the team around Carwyn Jones are understood to be angered by Mr Corbyn’s perceived dithering before action was taken against Bradford West MP Naz Shah and Mr Livingstone.

They add that Welsh Labour’s National Assembly election campaign has been built around projecting Mr Jones as a strong national leader. His team believe that Mr Corbyn’s failure to act swiftly after offensive comments made by Ms Shah on social media were revealed:

A source close to the Welsh Labour election campaign said: “We’ve made the campaign about strong leadership and Carwyn’s unique position as the only credible First Minister.

“That’s a difficult sell with Jeremy and particularly after the last 24 hours.”

There are understood to be no other plans at present for Mr Corbyn to visit Wales before polling day on May 5.

The cancellation of Mr Corbyn’s visit is the most glaring example yet of tensions between Welsh Labour and the Corbyn leadership in London.

While most, if not all, of Welsh Labour’s headquarters officials did not back Mr Corbyn in last year’s party leadership campaign, they have not engaged in overt action to undermine him.

But the anti-semitism row, coming so close to an Assembly election where the party’s campaign has been based very largely on Mr Jones’ image as a leader, has been, for his team, the final straw.

Whether such action is enough to protect Welsh Labour from the fall-out in next week's election will have to be seen.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

As doctors say that E-cigarettes should be offered to smokers will Welsh Ministers admit they were wrong to try to ban them?

Welsh Labour Ministers who tried and failed to ban e-cigarettes in public places at the end of the last Assembly term should take note of the verdict of the Royal College of Physicians before they try again after these elections.

The Royal College say there is resounding evidence that e-cigarettes are "much safer" than smoking and aid quitting. In a new report they say that with the right checks and measures, vaping could improve the lives of millions of people. And as if to directly refute arguments put forward by Labour Ministers the Royal College add that fears that e-cigarettes are a gateway to smoking are unfounded.

The BBC say that The Royal College of Physicians have concluded that smokers who use e-cigarettes or prescribed medications, with support from their doctor, are more likely to quit permanently.

And in terms of long-term health hazards, e-cigarettes are at least 95% safer than regular cigarettes, something Public Health England has also said.

E-cigarettes are not entirely risk-free of course but there is no case for any sort of ban and strong evidence that they work better than any other nicotine-replacement therapy in helping people quit the much more harmful activity of smoking tobacco.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Why Theresa May is wrong to want to quit the European Court on Human Rights

Theresa May's intervention in the European referendum debate yesterday was not just astonishing but deeply damaging for her reputation as Home Secretary. For somebody in that position to argue, as she did that we could trade an international court that guarantees our rights for membership of a free trade organisation such as the EU betrays ignorance of both.

The Independent sets out five important reasons why we should remain within part of the European Court of Human Rights which was set up by Winston Churchill and other Britains. The ECHR, opened in 1959 and upholds the European Convention on Human Rights among individuals against the 47 European countries, not just the 28 member countries of the EU. It is not directly an EU institution. The EU has its own court, the European Court of Justice, but the ECHR's rulings often become case law for countries.

The paper outlines some of the most significant laws the ECHR has brought to Britain. It is worth reproducing them in full:

1. Freedom of the press

In 1979 the ECHR backed the Sunday Times and its right to publish details of the thalidomide scandal, in which more than 300 people were thought to be victims of birth deformities because of the poorly tested drug.

The paper, under editor Harold Evans, fought an injunction against publishing all the way up to the ECHR after national courts did not back its attempts to bring the case to light. The ECHR overruled the courts and backed the freedom of the press to publish in the national interest.

2. Child protection

After a UK court found that a stepfather had used "reasonable chastisement" when beating his stepson with a wooden cane, the ECHR overruled them and said it amounted to "inhuman or degreading treatment".

The UK government announced later that it would legislate to give children better protection.

3. Homophobia

The criminalisation of male homosexuality in Northern Ireland was ruled as illegal by the ECHR in 1981.

This ruling set the legal precedent for the Council of Europe ultimately requiring that no EU state could criminalise male or female homosexual acts - a major protection measure for the LGBT community.

A claim of religious discrimination by two Christians who did not want to deal with same-sex couples was also thrown out by the Strasbourg court in 2013, who backed the employers that had disciplined them.

4. Torture

During the 1970s the British army used five "techniques" on IRA members including being forced into stress positions for hours, hooding, being subjected to noise and food and sleep deprivation.

The ECHR ruled this as inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of human rights in 1978 and had the practice within the army officially ended.

5. Deportation

Two cases have particularly inflamed the debate in some of the media and the Conservative Party around the European Convention of Human Rights.

First, the case of Aso Mohammed Ibrahim, a Kurdish asylum seeker who killed a 12-year-old girl in a driving accident and was able to plea a right to family life to remain in Britain seeking asylum.

The second was terror suspect Abu Qatada - Ms May's particular case study in the failings of the ECHR - whom Strasbourg blocked from being returned to Jordan because of evidence he had been tortured there.

Once Jordan promised not to use evidence obtained under torture, he was removed from the UK and stood trial in that country in 2013.

The ECHR also backed the deportation of five other terror suspects to the US after finding there would be no violation of human rights once they were in a "supermax" prison there.

There is a strong case for remaining part of an institution with such a track record. I am astonished that the Home Secretary cannot see that.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

More UKIP infighting and it is set to continue after the Assembly elections

Today's Western Mail reports (no link at present) that UKIP have already started planning for their possible entry into the Welsh Assembly before the electorate have even finished casting their votes and are fighting amongst themselves over the spoils.

This presumption appears to be catching. I appeared at an event recently at which the UKIP representative turned up with two companions who he introduced as the people he is going to employ as his staff once he is elected. He may have a shock when he sees the rules for employing staff, which are rigorously applied so as to ensure equal opportunity for all applicants.

The Western Mail tells us that Nathan Gill is likely to be challenged by discredited former Tory, Neil Hamilton for the leadership of his party's new National Assembly Group.

Apparently, Mr Hamilton has the support of former Conservative, Caroline Jones, who is standing in South Wales West and Gareth Bennett, who is their lead candidate in South Wales Central and recently got himself in hot water by making racially charged comments about Cardiff's Eastern European migrant community.

Mr. Gill is being backed by former Tory, Mark Reckless, who was himself rejected by voters in 2015 and has now crossed the Welsh border in search of a new job.

For those who find all these characters distasteful and are concerned at their lack of commitment to making devolution work then in South Wales West at least, a vote for the Welsh Liberal Democrats is the best way to stop them.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The European referendum and the use of language

There was an interesting article in yesterday's Observer in which Will Hutton deprecates the way that the European referendum has slipped into carelessness when it comes to facts and the truth.

He is particularly exercised about Boris Johnson's abhorrent article for The Sun on Friday morning in which he repeated the smear often peddled by the US radical right that Barack Obama’s Kenyan origins somehow mean that he is not a “real” American. The implication is that we should not trust part-Kenyan Obama and his urging Britain to stay in the EU.

Hutton says that the slur was 'partisan, unforgivable nonsense, with uneasy tones, at best, of crude identity politics, at worst, of sinking to a semi-racist smear.'

What stood out for me in the piece however was Hutton's chiding of the BBC for their rather shallow approach to impartiality:

Universities have recommitted to be firm custodians of academic freedom in the quest for understanding, backed by evidence. The BBC, a public broadcaster born of the best Enlightenment tradition of reason, should rejoin their ranks. Its new understanding of objectivity – to treat everything as equal claim and counterclaim – is to surrender. It is not good enough in reporting, say, Treasury analysis on the economic impact of leaving the EU to then “balance” it with a one-liner from Boris Johnson or an interview with John Redwood who have plainly not had time to read the 200-page document.

If Leave have fact and analysis with which to respond, that is different. Both sides should earn their place on news bulletins, not be gifted it because they have an opinion whose value is allegedly equal. If the BBC is terrified that John Whittingdale will take his revenge, after 23 June, if it sticks to Reithian rigour then so be it. Better go down fighting than turn into a glorified clearing house for rival press releases.

The referendum may be unedifying, but it is showing up the great cleavage in our country. Are we so keen to assert an idea of Britishness and so careless about evidence-based argument that we will damage ourselves economically by leaving the EU? Is politics to be framed by unfounded prejudice, funny one-liners and untruths? Do the majority of us want to live in a country constructed by the Eurosceptics and their press? Johnson’s article, I feel, was a watershed moment. I hope others see it that way too.

The decision we face on 23 June is too important to be dictated by popularism, sound bites and one liners. It is up to the media, and the BBC in particular, to ensure that both sides of the argument are properly scrutinised so that when we go to vote we have all the facts at our disposal.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Liberal Democrat wins Parliamentary by-election

Liberal Democrat victories in Parliamentary by-elections have been rare since 2010 but this week one such contest saw a former Lib Dem MP storm to victory with 100% of the vote.

What was unusual about this particular by-election was that all the other candidates were Liberal Democrats as well, the total electorate amounted to three individuals and they too are members of the party.

As the Independent reports, this rather arcane process saw John Thurso fill the vacancy caused by the death of hereditary peer Eric Lubbock, Lord Avebury, which only another Liberal Democrat can fill:

Under existing Lords procedures, the 92 hereditary peers can only be elected to the upper chamber by members of their own party.

Viscount Thurso was a member of the House of Lords between 1995 and 1999 before being expelled when New Labour reforms axed most 'hereditary' peers in favour of 'life' peers.

He was then elected MP for Caithness and Sutherland in 2001 and served up until 2015.

The existence of a remaining rump of 92 hereditary peers was seen as a “temporary” compromise by the government at the time to get the reforms through Parliament.

Viscount Thurso was unanimously elected by the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Glasgow and Lord Addington.

Surely it is time for this nonsensical process to be abolished and for the Lords to be turned into a totally elected, modern second chamber.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Is the state abusing its access to our personal data?

The Independent reports that British spies have been collecting bulk data on people for years, and abusing it to find out people’s addresses for birthday cards.

They say that new documents obtained by Privacy International during a legal hearing show that MI5, MI6 and GCHQ have been collecting and relying on huge amounts of data collected on almost every person in the country. And the papers show that spies have even been hacking themselves to find out that personal information so that they can use it for booking holidays and spying on their family members to get personal details. The papers also prove that the collection of bulk data has been happening for much longer than previously known:

The files show the huge amount of information that is being gathered by British spying groups. Ministers have previously argued that only people who are suspected of criminal or terrorist behaviour will be tracked – but they show that spies have been collecting bulk personal datasets on a range of innocent people for years, and arguing that they are used to find legitimate suspects.

The papers show how that same information has been used by spies to find out personal information, like looking up people’s addresses to send birthday cards.

“We’ve seen a few instances recently of individual users crossing the line with their database use, looking up addresses in order to send birthday cards, checking passport details to organise personal travel, checking details of family members for personal reasons. Another area of concern is the use of the database as a ‘convenient’ way to check the personal details of colleagues when filling out service forms on their behalf.

All of this may sound a bit incestuous of course but it raises fundamental questions about the safeguards that are in place to protect the privacy of innocent citizens who are not suspected of any crime. Time to review the rules and tighten them up in my view.

Friday, April 22, 2016

UKIP's opposition to climate change will end flood defence work

On the BBC website Labour make the entirely reasonable assertion that UKIP plans to scraps the Welsh Government's climate change and sustainability budget will mean that future plans for flood defence work will be scrapped.

They say that communities which have been the victims of serious flooding such as St Asaph, Boverton in the Vale of Glamorgan and along the A55 would be affected by any such proposal.

The planned cut would also end schemes like "Nest", which provides warm home environments and lower energy bills for lower income families.

UKIP have immediately started to row back on their own promises as soon as it was pointed out to them what they will mean on the ground. The fact is though, that not only are they in denial on the reasons for climate change but their ideological stance would threaten the viability and future of a number of communities around Wales whilst condemning many people to continuing fuel poverty.

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