Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Official Secrets

I have just had a major memory flash back. The Intercept has published an article by Duncan Campbell "GCHQ and Me: My Life Unmasking British Eavesdroppers". It was partly very familiar since I read the journals that Campbell worked for - as well as the extensive coverage of the ABC trial. And of course lots of background and since revealed secrets and substantiation that were kept secret at the time. 

I was a local government officer working in planning and transportation. It never occurred to me that any of this stuff would impact me, but then Mrs Thatcher abolished the GLC and I had to find re-employment. That came to be as a Civil Servant at the Department of Transport (DTp) at Marsham Street, SW1. And that meant the first thing I had to do was sign the Official Secrets Act. In the days before governments pretended to support Freedom of Information, everything that happened inside a Ministry was considered secret. This grab all approach was introduced at the beginning of the First World War and had not been changed since (we are talking about 1985 - 1988).

In Duncan Campbell's article he describes the ludicrous situation of those called to give evidence against him

As our trial started, witness after witness from security sites tried to claim that openly published information was in fact secret. In a typical interchange, one Sigint unit chief was shown a road sign outside his base:
Q: Is that the name of your unit?
A: I cannot answer that question, that is a secret.
Q: Is that the board which passers-by on the main road see outside your unit’s base?
A: Yes.
Q: Read it out to the jury, please.
A: I cannot do that. It is a secret.
So if I told you that at my workplace there was a staff canteen - we would both be guilty of an offence under the Act. I have passed information to you - and you have received it.

The following information would therefore also fall under that Act. Our office was not open to the public. No-one could be admitted without showing an official pass. And if by chance you had picked up such a pass - say if it had been accidentally dropped in the street - you would not be able to tell what it was. Or if you recognised it as an Official Pass there was no way for you to tell who it had been issued to or where it might be useful. The offices inside the building were not normally locked but they had cupboards and filing cabinets that could be locked. There were also key boxes which had combination locks where keys to conventional locks could be stored. Combinations were a complex series of numbers and we were forbidden from writing them down anywhere. But there was no information on any door that might give a clue to the uninitiated what might go on behind it - unless it said "Ladies" or "Emergency Exit". Not even - and I do not exaggerate - "First Aid".

One morning I came to work and was summoned to see the Under Secretary, who formally informed me that there had been a serious breach of security and I was required to see - um, somebody. I mean they did tell me her name and a job title, but frankly I did not believe either. At one time I had worked near St James's Park, and one of the neighbouring buildings was known by all to be used by some kind of intelligence outfit. The building was anonymous. There was no brass plate outside. Ian Fleming in his Bond novels suggested that MI6 pretended to be a company Universal Exports. That may have been true at one time but wasn't then. My Dad, as a Clerk in the Public Control Department  of the London County Council in 1939, looked after vehicle registration documents. He was able to easily determine that some vehicles which seemed to be involved in laundry collection and delivery were actually engaged in clandestine activities. He, of course, kept this information to himself until long after the war was over. But it seemed to me then, and still does, that if someone tells you they work for Government Security - they may well not be especially truthful. About anything at all.

I asked for one of my colleagues to be present when I met the security woman. Neither of us were permitted to take notes.  Apparently, there was a bunch of spooks who were employed to wander around inside government offices checking on the effectiveness of the security arrangements. And they had looked into my office desk diary and tried some of the phone numbers I had written down for contacts, and one of those numbers worked to open a combination lock on a key box in a nearby office. Not in my office, somewhere else. That produced keys that opened cabinets which contained information some of which was classified "confidential". Such documents were subject to special handling and storage arrangements. Hardly any of them came across my desk. It did not matter that my colleagues and I had devised a simple way to retrieve the combination that we actually needed that had nothing to do with diaries or phone numbers - and opened a different set of file drawers to the ones the spooks had got open.

So I was given a formal reprimand. Then she smiled: "Not that we think the Russians are especially interested in the new parking rates for the City of Westminster."

I didn't like to tell her that I had no idea we were being consulted about that. It was a municipal matter and well beyond our control. Indeed our attempts to influence the City in how they controlled parking were going exactly nowhere as there simply had not been time to set up adequate procedures before the GLC was abolished. Something I did know something about, and might well have been why they decided to give me a job, but no-one had ever bothered to talk to me about.

I'm afraid that always coloured my reaction to any of the revelations about the security and intelligence community. It always seemed to me that anything that happened in any government office was much more readily explicable by the cock-up theory than the conspiracy theory. Yes, SIGINT probably did get huge amounts of material from unauthorised wiretaps. The problem was they were unable to sort the few bits of real hard intelligence from the vast amounts of dross - or even to stitch together the good bits into a narrative that anyone actually paid attention to.   And subsequently I have read both revelations from those victimised by this system and the counter story of those who try to continue to persuade us that any of this is really necessary.  And I know who I prefer to believe. Duncan Campbell and Edward Snowden seem to me to be on the right track.

By the way, at the time I did expect a bit more questioning about my activities in what had been a Communist Country and which subsequently became a grisly killing field. But no-one seemed interested in that either.

- 30 -

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Three Sisters Winery: 2013 Pinot Noir

I bet you have seen "Sideways". You might even have said - in a loud, offensive way "I ain't drinkin' no fuckin' Merlot!" as a tribute to Miles. He also introduced me to the complexity - and the sheer difficulty - of producing a decent Pinot Noir. This is the grape used to make champagne. And also California style single grape variety red wine. Which the French used to regard as crazy (every great French wine is a blend) until they began to appreciate the value of the oenology from University of California, Davis. Not least of which was marketing.

This week, on our way back from the usual blow out sale at the Bay in Oakridge (no, really, I needed tennis shoes - and we had to to replace the inherited EPNS with some usable flatware) we stopped at the Farmers' Market in Kerrisdale. We needed some good bread for lunch. We also bought peaches and there was stall with wine from the Naramata Bench. Which sounds Australian. But isn't. One of the best things about a Farmers' Market is you get to talk with the producers. They are obviously not marketers, or salespeople. But they have an unmistakable enthusiasm for the stuff they grow or make. We were encouraged to taste the wines. Not a hard task to persuade us, I admit. They had a Tempranillo - which I associate with Spain. And I thought has been too long in the oak cask. But I liked the Pinot Noir, and my partner really liked the Chardonnay. Now this is unusual as we still have the rule of ABC - Anything But Chardonnay. There is simply too much of it. (This also used to apply to Cabernet but no longer.) And thanks to modern technology they take credit cards. We bought two bottles of Pinot Noir and two of Chardonnay. We had not brought shopping bags with us but still made it back to the car safely.

I must also here insert a plug for the Vinturi: every red wine benefits from decanting. The Vinturi is an honourable short cut. I would not normally pair Pinot Noir with pepper steak. I did this time, and it was wonderful. If you are lucky enough to find Three Sisters Pinot Noir 2013, get at least a couple of bottles. Trust me, you will enjoy them.


Monday, 20 July 2015

U.S., Cuba restore full diplomatic ties after 5 decades

I just heard the news on CBC Radio. The full story had this little sting in the tail.

"U.S. calls for Cuba to improve on human rights and democracy."

It seems to me to be chutzpah of the highest order for a country which spies on its own citizens - and just about everybody else - as a matter of course. Where people are shot dead by police with little or no reason or consequence. Which incarcerates a greater percentage of its citizens than almost anywhere else, many of whom are innocent of the crimes of which they are charged. Which denies due process on a regular basis to large numbers of people held for immigration control purposes. Which still executes large numbers of people - and many of those have been shown to be innocent too. Which has programmes that captures, holds for long periods, tortures and refuses to release people in secret prisons around the world, including one in Cuba that is maintained because that puts it beyond reach of the US courts. Where people can have their cash and property seized as possible proceeds of crime, which is then used to fund police forces and other state activities, where the only recourse is a civil court system which is hideously expensive and tilted heavily in the state's favour, due to the politicisation of judicial appointments. Which operates both prisons and juvenile detention as sources of cheap labour and high profit for private corporations. Which regularly and as a matter of course interferes with the electoral process both through gerrymandering and voter suppression up to and including the election of a President (George W Bush) illegally.  Where money is equated with speech so that capital now dictates the political process. Which operates unmanned drones to spy - and drop bombs - on people who have been deemed to be terrorists based on little or no evidence - and none of which is subject to any form of democratic control or review.

While full diplomatic ties have been restored, it will continue to be illegal for Americans to visit Cuba - or even do business there. Which I find encouraging, since that preserves a country that is worth visiting to see what a place untrammelled by unlimited capitalism looks like. Yes, I know about Castro's prisons - and the fun he had emptying them into Florida when given the chance. But I also know about Cuba's health care and education systems which, I venture to suggest, perform at a much higher standard at a far lower cost than their American counterparts. The Cubans have shown themselves to be both resilient and innovative thanks to the US embargo that prevented them from being swallowed by the multinational consumerism so evident in most other places. They have also been fortunate not to become the sort of client states we now see in Haiti - or Greece.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

"White men don't understand ..."

"White men don't understand what gender and race have to do with anything. They don't experience sexism or racism."

 The quotation is from a tweet - and the context is

“Sandra Bland died because of a traffic stop and my mentions are filled up with angry white men denying white privilege and patriarchy.”

So from this you know that the tweeters are female and American.

And the reaction that this provoked in me could not be compressed into 140 characters or less.

I am a white male. I am also 66 years old and have immigrated from England to Canada. I have not been the subject of racism - in the sense that these women would understand it - and not, of course, sexism. But that does not mean that I have not experienced prejudice. That I do not have first hand experience of people who have made a set of judgements about me - who I am and what I must be thinking -  based on the very little information others have from first impressions. That I have not been refused service, or attacked physically and verbally, or denied that to which I am clearly entitled. That people have not closed ranks in my presence and ignored or belittled me simply because of who they judge me to be.

Indeed I would be very surprised indeed if anyone had not experienced being excluded, exoricated and even persecuted based on accent, appearance or probable origin. Anyone who has attended any kind of educational establishment would have seen - even if they had not been a victim of - the creation of the scapegoat. The Other. An alien on whom all scorn and blame may be safely laid. The individual who can be used by exception to identify the group to which he (or she) clearly does not belong.

There are many white males who will have been treated badly due to their social position, accent, sexual preference, size - even hair colour. There are places where, if you have red hair, you can expect attacks - verbal and physical - if you are "a ginger". Northern Ireland for many years - and continues - to practice religious intolerance. You will be judged by your supposed adherence to Catholicism or Protestantism - or even worse if you are seen to be "a Brit" - the enemy!

The British have long made a fetish about class: often determined by accent - but there are other signs and signals. "The way an Englishman speaks makes every other Englishman despise him" (G B Shaw via Lerner and Loewe). I went to a university where only 25% of the students had previously attended state schools. Do you think the other 75% were universally well disposed to this minority?

I have experienced bullying since I was 5. I was surprised at the common reaction to "Lord of the Flies". I thought everybody knew how appallingly little boys treated each other. The surprise to me was the discovery that little girls in a Canadian suburban elementary school could be even worse. I expected their high school cliques to be bad: I did not expect such exclusionary instincts to kick in on the under 7 soccer field!

The British seem to create clubs just so that they can exclude some people. Many groups can only identify themselves by knowing who they are not. Canadian identity, for instance, is simply not being American. Yes, I was discriminated against as an immigrant. Yes, I experienced exclusion based on ethnicity. Yes, I have been the subject of class prejudice and anti-semitism.

And do not imagine that these things stop when you leave school, or university. Bullying is common in most workplaces. Preference is given to insiders. It is often said that it is not what you know but who you know. You will be passed over for promotion or the plum assignment based on your lack of knowledge of something as irrelevant as hockey or baseball. Clubs are as strong here as anywhere. The Masons or the Knights of this or that do not exist to promote charity or fellowship, but to determine who gets shut out based on gossip and innuendo.

From what I have observed, I would say that homophobia is as powerful as any racial or gender prejudice. That stammerers and those with developmental issues, educational challenges or mental illnesses, or even physical disabilities, all experience the same kind of exclusion and glass ceilings as women or people with darker skin tones.

And they can be white men and not experience the benefits of white privilege or patriarchy.

Some white men understand only too well - and the others continue to benefit from it.   That is why we all need systems - laws - practices - conventions - that protect everyone.

We hold these truths to be self evident. That all men (which means "all human beings") are created equal.
What is hard is making that belief a reality.

AFTERWORD from Chuck Dunning on Facebook

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Bard on the Beach: King Lear

Set of King Lear at Bard on the Beach

This production comes from Calgary - where it ran over last winter - and it is thus very polished. We had seen Lear fairly recently from the National Theatre Live, so I was quite surprised by how much emotional impact I felt last night. Perhaps that is just the magic of live theatre over an electronic screen. The cast of Bard is also much more familiar to me from other performances, and this production has perforce to double up a lot of the minor roles, which also did not seem to matter very much at all. The plot of Lear is, I imagine, familiar to most people. Lear is losing his faculties and fears madness. And in other performances the relationship with his fool seems closer and more affectionate. I found it odd that Lear kept referring to the Fool as "boy" when he was a man as old as himself - or should I have interpreted that as simply evidence of senility? He has two appalling daughters - harpies the pair of them - and these two even manage to look like sisters. They epitomise sibling rivalry. But then there is also the other plot of the perfidy of Gloucester's illegitimate son Edmund against his legitimate half brother Edgar - who also takes refuge in madness, or rather its superficial appearance. Easier to believe in this performance than Kent suddenly adopting a Scottish accent and a bonnet as an effective disguise. The horrors are indeed convincing, and the death of Cordelia moving. At the end of Lear most of the cast has been killed off. Tragedy indeed. And one that somehow survived unexpected fireworks being let off on the other side of the inlet at the denouement: I know it was the 4th of July but I thought that fireworks have been banned.

There were quite a few empty seats last night - which is a pity. Bard is well worth supporting. But at least you can be fairly sure of getting in even if you have not already booked. While you are on line now go and check availability.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Photo books

Since the end of 2010 I have been putting together hardback books of the photos I take on our major vacations. Initially I did this because my partner was then a bit averse to using her computer to look at Flickr. Later on she got an iPad - but even then she doesn't like reading books on it. For her birthday this year I bought her matching editions of the first two parts of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantell, something she already had as ebooks, but had not opened.

The process of making a "dead tree" book from a Flickr "album" (as they now term sets) ought to be easier than it is. They have integrated their system with HP's Snapfish. Initially I was less than pleased to find that I had to upload much better quality images than I usually shared. Frankly I found that one of the few effective ways to cut down outright theft of my pictures was to publish only low res versions. But to get good quality prints, you need the highest resolution you can manage. So everything then depends on the quality of the internet connection, and the amount of traffic on the Flickr site. They have never ever managed to keep up with growing traffic and are regularly knocked offline by sheer volume of use (not denial of service attacks).

The last book Snapfish made for me was of the Grand Canyon trip. The finished volume was of such poor quality that I complained and they refunded my purchase price.

London Drugs offers an online printing service, but for Mac users the software is hopeless. It simply cannot cope with the new Photos app. That is a shame since it would be more convenient to pick up a book from their store than go through the waiting for the FedEx delivery frustrations.

Photos has its own built in printing service linked to Apple's online store. As you might expect, it is very easy to use if you have a MacBook Pro. Just look for the Project tab in Photos. The first product arrived yesterday. The price was roughly the same as I had got used to paying for Snapfish, but the quality is outstanding. That may be due in part to the 16 megapixel images I now get from my PowerShot A1400. Most of the images had been uploaded to Flickr, but I used the originals from the hard drive. Uploading to Apple did not take nearly as long as I feared. The book comes with both an illustrated dust jacket and a slip cover. I used as few words as possible - as the typos that crept into earlier book drive me nuts now.

I recommend Apple as the printer to go to for Mac users.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Comedy of Errors: Bard on the Beach

Bard on the Beach Bard on the Beach has opened with previews of a new production of "The Comedy of Errors". I saw this play in July of 2009, but this is a wholly new production, directed by Scott Bellis and based on one he did for Studio 58. The style is Steampunk: "a subgenre of science fiction and sometimes fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery." (wikipedia)

The costumes rely heavily on sunglasses and goggles, which means you really do not notice when people are doubling up on roles. The plot is, of course, ridiculous. Two sets of identical twins, who get split up by a storm at sea, who then have the same names, but when one set goes in search of the other is surprised when people mistake them for someone else, but do not put 2 and 2 together. And of course the actors cannot be identical though the two Dromios in this production (males played by females) do look very similar. The way twinship is established is through costumes, which, of course we all accept. Ben Elliot and Jay Hindle are physically rather different but as they only appear together infrequently in entr'acts for much of the performance that really doesn't matter.

Excellent performances from all, and some well handled stage business plus imaginative design of both set and costumes and the time flies by. This is actually Shakespeare's shortest play and the only time I found my attention wandering was during some of Adriana's longer speeches. Sereana Malani is cast a shrewish wife, but her Antiphon gives her plenty of cause for complaint: being late for dinner is the least of it. There isn't much opportunity to play her any other way, which is a shame and could be changed, I think, to provide a bit more of a rounded character. Her costumes are astonishing but cannot carry the entire show. Lili Beaudoin has a small but memorable bit as The Courtesan - and an even better costume!

I have booked all four shows this year, carefully spaced out at one a month. Quite simply, I am a fan of Bard and will happily go to anything they put on. But even so I heartily recommend this production. You do not need to be a fan to enjoy the show.