Duran Duran's Girls on Film.
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Who’d have thought I’d learn the meaning of life from an Avaaz petition?

Englightenment via Avaaz, Duran Duran and Bananarama.

A visit from my great friend J—. We’d been out of touch for decades but one afternoon a few years ago I was walking in a desultory fashion through the snow in Regent’s Park, looking sadly at the frolicking youngsters, when her phone number popped into my head. I remembered the number because when we were at school I had the most debilitating crush on her, and while such things are on the whole no good to anyone, they do at least have the virtue of making you remember phone numbers, whose first six digits you have dialled often and on flimsy pretexts.

It is a long shot that she is still in the same place but as it’s round the corner I think: why the hell not, and she answers it, which she says is unusual for her as we have reached that period of western civilisation where landline use is largely confined to scammers. We meet up again – and so, every few months, she pops round to the Hovel for a chat and a glass of wine and a game of backgammon.

This time she’s asked to come round at very short notice but as I am at a loose end and could do with some company this is a most pleasant surprise. I had been brooding over a petition that a friend had asked me to sign – for Avaaz, of all people. While its deeper purpose escaped me, the immediate goals of the petition were clear: it laid out three principles for living in 2015 – to show kindness and respect, strive for wisdom and “practice [sic] gratitude”.

“We will show kindness and respect towards ourselves and others whenever possible . . .” it began.

They sort of lost me at the words “towards ourselves”, on the grounds that thinking you’re groovy just for the hell of it is an obstacle to self-knowledge. I mean, Prince Charles thinks he’s pretty amazing and look where it’s got him, the meddling fool. After this, the petition invited us to promise that: “We will seek to be wise in our decisions, listening deeply to ourselves and others, and balancing our heads, hearts and intuitions in a harmony that feels right.”

I glance at the photo. In a crowd of happy disposable- cagoule-wearing people there is a young woman with a circlet of flowers in her hair and a heart painted on her cheek. I also notice that we are to listen deeply to ourselves before we listen to others. Would I want to act on the wisdom of a woman who paints a heart on her cheek and sticks flowers in her hair? That boat sailed in the Sixties. The third plank of the petition, in which we are invited to “practice gratitude”, I have no problem with, but one out of three isn’t enough.

As I’m thinking about this, I get an email asking me if I’d like to be interviewed for a forthcoming television programme. The world has gone mad, I conclude.

J— comes round with a nice bottle of white. I rustle up a couscous and invite her to talk because I gather she has been having a rotten time of it lately.

As she talks, a suspicion that had begun to form a few days earlier – while I’d stared at that meaningless petition – grows, like a crystal in a kid’s chemistry set. The details of J—’s tale will remain private but they involve legal matters, which, unusually even for legal matters, defy all notions of common sense and make the word “Kafkaesque” seem laughably inadequate. She pauses to say that, on the bright side, a plaque is to be put on the wall of the recording studio she runs, acknowledging the important contribution made to local culture by, among others, Duran Duran and Bananarama.

Now, I will not hear a word against these bands, and such a plaque will be an adornment to the area and bring a smile to the lips of many who pass that way. What with one thing and another, and considering all I’ve heard over the past few days; what with the stupid hippies, my ridiculous existence, lawyers, death, Prince Charles, the continuous underlying vapid mutterings of idiocy everywhere, I tell J— that I no longer think that life is meaningless, or a waste, or so on, but that it is, simply, silly.

I think, fleetingly, of the bit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when Arthur decides, after an impromptu song and dance routine, not to go to Camelot, because it’s a very silly place. I wonder if I have offended J— after all she’s been going through but she sighs and says, “Yes, it is silly. I think that’s the word.”

Which makes me wonder: have we inadvertently achieved, as that petition urged us to, wisdom?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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