Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Clash of civilizations?

There's an interesting, if slightly alarming, article in the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Magazine on the rise of militant, irrational intolerance, (or "faith", to use the currently fashionable euphemism):

In Britain we are seeing worrying signs of a new Islamic assertiveness, with condemnation by self-appointed Islamic leaders of every perceived insult to Islam, demands for special treatment for Muslims in schools, hospitals and the workplace, and the acceptance of sharia law for the settlement of family disputes.

But this phenomenon is not confined to Britain, or even Europe. It is part of an international campaign, orchestrated by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), demanding the worldwide acceptance and adoption of Islamic norms and values.

For the past 30 years, the OIC, which represents all 57 Islamic States at the UN, and which many observers see as the rebirth of the global caliphate, has been pushing for global recognition of the special status for Islam....

Now, the OIC is pushing for new international law that would be binding on all states, to make defamation of religion – or blasphemy – a criminal offence worldwide. For the Islamic states there is no distinction between religion and state, and sharia law is deemed to be God’s law, so any criticism of sharia law is itself considered blasphemy, punishable by death. This means, to take just one example, that not only is homosexuality punishable by death under sharia law, but so too would be any call for the law on homosexuality to be liberalised....

This new, Islamic-inspired intolerance is spreading beyond the Islamic world and is beginning to affect the daily lives of millions. It has created a climate in which even nominally Christian countries feel able to introduce draconian antigay legislation. In Uganda, for example, under draft legislation before parliament, homosexuality is falsely characterised as “a threat to the traditional heterosexual family” and same-sex attraction as “not an innate characteristic”.

You can read the whole article here, and I'd urge you to do so. What these bullies want is to pick, with impunity, on women, gays, followers of other religions, non-believers and, most of all, anybody who dares to think independently, rather than being told what to think or believe. Anyone who dares to challenge the bullies' agenda is labelled "intolerant". Good evening Mr Pot, have you met Mr Kettle?

This isn't a "Clash of Civilizations", though. The sort of bigotry promoted by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference isn't a million miles from the casual discrimination commonplace here in Britain within living memory, as the BBC reminded us reminded earlier this year:

Gordon Brown has said he is sorry for the "appalling" way World War II code-breaker Alan Turing was treated for being gay.

A petition on the No 10 website had called for a posthumous government apology to the computer pioneer.

In 1952 Turing was prosecuted for gross indecency after admitting a sexual relationship with a man. Two years later he killed himself....
Alan Turing was given experimental chemical castration as a "treatment" and his security privileges were removed, meaning he could not continue to work for the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

Britain, in the 1950's and most of the 60's Private sexual acts between consenting men were illegal. Undercover policemen cruised the nation's public toilets on the look out for "immorality". Abortion or attempts to "procure a miscarriage" were illegal except under the most extreme circumstances. Landlords greeted immigrants from the Caribbean and Ireland with signs saying "no blacks, no Irish, no dogs". The Bristol bus company operated a colour bar, refusing employment to blacks or Asians. The Lord Chamberlain's Office protected public morals by censoring theatre scripts.

This wasn't a different civilization. It was the same country, since changed by the tireless campaigning of people who weren't content to see random groups of people being picked on for being "different". There is a varied group of people, united by the belief that different cultures are unchanging, monolithic, incompatible with one another and pure. This group feel that belonging to one culture or another is the most important defining characteristic of a human being. This group includes religious fundamentalists of various persuasions, people who see identity politics as an end in itself, (rather than just a means to highlight and overcome discrimination) and post Cold-War Warriors in search of an enemy.

This group is wrong - the truth they are afraid of is that change does happen to cultures and that people can escape from their assigned pigeonholes. Many of the clashes that matter happen within and across civilizations. History shows that it's not a quick, easy or painless process, but it's happened before and it can happen again - which, I suspect, is what really frightens the bullies of the OIC.

Thursday, 17 December 2009


It's getting close enough to Christmas for something seasonal, so here's a link to Enya's haunting rendition of my favourite Christmas Carol, the beautiful O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Utterly gorgeous.

Catch it, bin it, kill it

In my last blog post, I made a facetious reference to having "dragged myself in to work, probably infecting others in the process". In my new role as a respectable small businessman*, guess I'd better point out that that wasn't a serious remark (if I didn't hate emoticons, I might have put a smiley in there). To the best of my knowledge no clients or colleagues were harmed during my sniffy episode, as I took the precaution of carrying and using generous supplies of tissues and antiseptic hand gel to prevent any transmission of disease.

In fact, I've only seriously wanted to spread a virus once in my life. A while back, when I had a short time doing a horrible little office job (the sort that would qualify for a slot in The Idler's "Crap Jobs" slot), I had a similar dose of lurgie. I really felt awful, but dragged myself into work, despite that poky little office being the last place on earth I wanted to be and just got on with what I was supposed to be doing, without complaint. I shared the office with two people, one of whom was an ill-natured toad-like individual who had taken an unprovoked dislike to me from the moment I'd arrived and who seemed to be on a mission to make my working life as miserable as possible, with constant carping, rudeness, theatrical sighing and eye-rolling and heavy-handed attempts to be patronising (this person, like most such colleagues from hell was, of course, bosom buddies with the boss).

On that day, only the toad and myself were in. After having made a supreme effort to get in and do my work to the best of my ability, despite feeling absolutely dreadful, I was greeted by a glowering look of spiteful malevolence from the toad. After a long period of silence, punctuated by ostentatious sighing, tutting and dirty looks, the toad announced in an exasperated voice that this was a small office and that I should be considerate enough go to the GP and demand antibiotics immediately in order not to risk infecting my colleagues (not a note of concern for me or my family, who'd all been laid low by a very unpleasant bug). I was too cross to trust myself to say anything, although in my head, I gave sarcastic thanks for the toad's concern and pointed out the stupidity of demanding antibiotics to treat a virus. At that moment I sincerely hoped that I was infectious and that the toad would catch the same miserable virus. Sad to say, the toad remained in rude health.

* Hi, I'm Sneezy, pleased to meet you Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful and Dopey.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Seasonal annoyances

I've been away from the PC for a few days. Explosive sneezes, violent shivering, hacking coughs, deathly pallor? This isn't just a winter cold, this is M & S Christmas Man 'Flu. With modest heroism, I soldiered on through the valley of the shadow of A Slightly Runny Nose and dragged myself in to work, probably infecting others in the process but, hey, it's good to share, especially at Christmas. Anyway, I'm better now, so that's one seasonal annoyance probably finished with.

Unfortunately, I can't get rid of another one quite so easily - a musical plague of irritating Christmas pop lyrics. The lyrics of the average Christmas hit are like the average Christmas cracker joke. Just as people don't seem to mind cracker jokes being rubbish, the most trite, saccharine words get a similar amnesty, just because it's Christmas and get rolled out again year after year, instead of sinking into well-deserved obscurity. I try not to listen, but sometimes I can't help hearing stuff like this from Paul Mccartney's Yule-tastic eulogy to Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time:

The Choir Of Children Sing Their Song

They Practiced All Year Long

Ding Dong, Ding Dong

Ding Dong, Ding Dong

Ding Dong, Ding Dong

Passing swiftly over the ding dong-ing, apparently these children have been practicing all year long. All year? I find it hard to believe that any child, however devoted to choral music, the baby Jesus or unwrapping a new Nintendo Wii on Christmas Morning, really practices carol singing for twelve months of the year. Do you really expect me to think the little blighters were perfecting their rendition of "Hark The Herald Angels" in April? I think not. But it rhymes and everybody's drunk at Christmas, so they probably won't notice.

When not subjected to Xmas pop in public places, I'll be limiting my Christmas music experience to carols (proper traditional ones, not the happy clappy modern rubbish) and the only Christmas Hit that I've ever enjoyed without reservation, Fairytale of New York by the Pogues, featuring the late Kirsty MacColl. When the song first came out, some of the lyrics were thought too fruity by the BBC, who played "an edited version because some members of the audience might find it offensive." Well I'm offended by all that ding dong-ing and year-long carol practice. I'm just off to write an outraged letter to the beeb...

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Crimes, follies and misfortunes

"History" wrote Edward Gibbon "is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind". That view makes some sort of sense if you stick to the "traditional" sort of history that's really just a chronicle of wars and monarchs (the crowning examples of human malice and stupidity). Include the history of invention, discovery and thought, the overthrow of tyrannies and the occasional triumphs of justice, reason, fairness and human happiness and the picture becomes more balanced.

In that spirit I've decided, without being too Pollyanna-ish to seek, out more of life's positives in future. There is, of course, plenty still to rant against and sometimes having a good old rant against crimes and follies is a pleasure in itself. So before I start putting my new resolution to the test, one last look at two of the most enjoyable demolitions of malice and stupidity I've come across this year. After all, if shops can start hawking Christmas tat when bonfire night's still a month or more in the future, I don't see why I can't beat the rush and get my New Years' resolution and 'best of 2009' out of the way in December. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

First, the malice. I have zero interest in celebrity gossip, boy bands and associated media froth, so, in general I have no interest, in what anybody chooses to think about these subjects. But this response to Jan Moir's unprovoked, venomously petty attack on someone who'd just died at a tragically early age was a magnificently concise summation of everything there is to detest about Daily Mail editorials composed of one part narrow-mindedness to one part bullying. It's been reproduced a million times already and I make no apologies for reproducing it for the million and first time:

It has been 20 minutes since I've read her now-notorious column, and I'm still struggling to absorb the sheer scope of its hateful idiocy. It's like gazing through a horrid little window into an awesome universe of pure blockheaded spite. Spiralling galaxies of ignorance roll majestically against a backdrop of what looks like dark prejudice, dotted hither and thither with winking stars of snide innuendo.

Thank you, Charlie Booker, for summing up, in one paragraph everything you really need to know about the world-view of the average Daily Mail Columnist. As rants go, that was truly majestic.

Next, the stupidity. The war against Complementary And Alternative Medicine is, I fear, being lost on all fronts, with scarce, precious NHS resources being squandered on unproven quackery, degrees in mumbo-jumbo being awarded by universities and Prince Charles using the accident of his birth to puff the peddling of snake oil to the deluded. Still, at least the skeptics can still come up with the most entertaining comments. Check this out:

Are you a bit hard of thinking? Do you regularly find people taking advantage of your gullibility? Most importantly, have you got more money than strictly necessary for a person of your limited intelligence? Then I would like to introduce you to Tomatso Therapy.

Tomatso Therapy is relatively new to the West, as I've only just thought of it. It is heavily influenced by the teachings of Dr. Mascari Hamsuit 34th Grandmaster of the nine schools of Ninja Turtles in Japan. It takes a holistic approach to a client's financial affairs, seeking to rebalance them in the therapist's favour. After all too large a pension fund, or too large a wallet could easily lead to back aches or other symptoms.

Tomatsu practitioners use many different techniques to suit the circumstances of the patient, but these normally involve tying the patient to the couch and blindfolding him while an assistant goes through his pockets.

The purpose of Tomatso is to aid in the restoration of my bank balance and is extremely effective because it has this core principle: - "The person with the best knowledge of the client's problem is the therapist, so give him all your money."

This means as a Tomatsu practitioner, I will observe you carefully as you fill in our special 'financial disclosure form/power of attorney' before making the necessary adjustment and allowing your body to heal naturally, free of the worry of all that excess money.

If you would like an initial consultation please visit

Respect goes out to the Saltburn Subversives for that one. And to DC's Improbable Science, where I found it, Professor David Colquhoun's anti-quackery soapbox.

I've done crimes and follies, but I'm not going to do misfortunes (crimes and follies deserve to be mocked, but misfortune deserves only sympathy). Still, two out of three ain't bad. That was so much fun, I can see it's going to be hard to stick to my New Year's Resolution. Good job I started early.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Beam 'me' up, Scotty?

I've just seen an excellent short film on YouTube. It's a variation on the old paradox that I first came across as "William the Conqueror's Axe" - the blade's been replaced twice and the handle three times, but it's still the same axe - or is it? Yes, it's the "Ship of Theseus" problem again.

Axes and ships, though, are just objects. What happens when we apply the "Ship of Thesesus" to a person? There's an interesting way to think about this, using a device common in science fiction. Many science fiction stories feature a "matter transmitter" or "teleporter" a device that can make a thing or person in one place disappear and then cause the same thing or person to reappear, practically instantaneously, elsewhere. Famous examples include the Star Trek "Transporter " and the device used by the unfortunate scientist in The Fly to transmit himself from one place to another. There are several explanations for how such a device might work, some involving unlikely concepts such as moving through a higher dimension or some sort of wormhole in space-time.

The earliest science fiction descriptions of matter transporters imagined them as some sort of scanner which would scan and analyse a thing or person before transmitting a facsimile rather like a telecommunications message. There are some serious difficulties with such an arrangement, but it's a useful way to imagine the "Ship of Theseus" problem applied to people. This type of imaginary matter transmitter would scan something - for our purposes, let's say a person - in exact detail, down to the last electron. Having scanned a an absolutely complete description of that person, it would then transmit that description to another place where, presumably with the aid of a receiver / reassembling unit, the person is recreated. Hey presto, instantaneous teleportation! You walk into the Transport-Me booth in your home town, press a button and reappear in another booth on the other side of the world, in the time that it would take a photo booth to snap your passport photo.

The idea of teleportation by technology in fiction is much older than Star Trek - a quick rummage in Wikipedia came up with an 1877 story about attempted human teleportation based on what was then cutting-edge communications technology:

Edward Page Mitchell's story The Man Without a Body details the efforts of a scientist who discovers a method to disassemble a cat's atoms, transmit them over a telegraph wire, and then reassemble them. When he tries this on himself, the telegraph's battery dies after only the man's head was transmitted.

Now for the "serious difficulties". Let's ignore flat telegraph batteries and Hollywood's problem with a fly in the transmitter causing a hideous human-fly mashup to emerge at the other end and take a brief layman's look at the problems with the engineering, physics and philosophy of the device.

In engineering terms, teleporting a human in this form is almost certainly impossible - the amount of information required to scan and record a complete description of a human body and mind, such that you could recreate an living, breathing, individual person with thoughts, memory and a sense of self at a given moment is so vast as to make such a thing impossible for all practical purposes.

It's worse than that, he's dead, Jim it's not just a practical impossibility but a theoretical one. A scan on the sub-atomic level could never achieve perfect fidelity because of the operation of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Not a problem if you're using the transmitter to move furniture, but billions of sub atomic copying errors wouldn't be good enough if you wanted to be sure that the person who stepped out of the receiver/assembler was the same one who stepped into the transmitter.

Which brings us on to the philosophical problem of identity. Because, even if it wasn't impossible, a matter transmitter working on this principle wouldn't be a form of transport. It would scan and reproduce. The person walking out of the receiver/assembler wouldn't be the person who'd walked into the transmitter, any more than a copy printed by a photocopier is the original document that was scanned. Of course, even if you'd achieved the impossible task of complete fidelity and the document or person copied was absolutely identical to the original scanned in every respect, you'd end up an original and a copy. The original wouldn't have gone anywhere.

To appear to transport people over distances, rather than creating clones of them somewhere else, the scan/transmit matter transporter would have to destroy the originals. If you were to be completely annihilated only for an exact copy of yourself, with all your thoughts, memories and feelings to reappear somewhere else in the blink of an eye, would you take the "trip"? Would that person be you? It's an interesting thought experiment.

As a thought experiment it may seem far fetched but in the real world, in a piecemeal way, we're constantly being destroyed and created. Consider this:

Every cell in the human body is replaced and renewed within a period of seven years, consecutively, for life. This is known as aging; it includes the brain. Not one cell a person is born with is still there when they reach seven, and again at fourteen, then again at twenty-one, etc. The cells are replaced, respectively, and you are a "brand new" person, however, with the same DNA structure and personality you were born with.

Memory cells can be "recycled" as some information is lost over time.

Sleep repairs and reorganizes the brain; as for new brain cell development, research shows that as one educates their mind new cells form as often as the mind is actively engaged.

Like the Ship of Theseus, we're constantly being repaired and replaced plank by plank, until there are no original parts left - the only difference between this process and being destroyed and recreated in an instant is time.

Which brings me to the short film. It's by John Weldon, it's called To Be and it's great. A word of warning - I originally found this on Overcoming Bias, with the comment:

A while back I saw it on YouTube, but couldn’t find it a few months later; it had violated copyright. I actually bought a $15 dvd of it from the National Film Board of Canada. But as Nathan Cook informs us, it is now on YouTube again, here.

So, if this link doesn't work, apologies, it must have been taken down again. If it does, "enjoy it while you can".

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Loss of focus

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A Senate report says Osama bin Laden was unquestionably within reach of U.S. troops in the mountains of Tora Bora, when American military leaders decided not to pursue him with massive force.

You may or may not take this at face value (Republicans are already complaining loudly that this is a case of selective, partisan leaking, aimed at discrediting the Bush administration). But somewhere along the line, things did go pear-shaped. I'm inclined to blame a lack of evidence-based policy making and the loss of focus, once the Bush administration had decided to lead the charge against Iraq on the grounds of mythical and potent weapons of mass destruction and Iraq's practically non-existent links with Al Quaeda. At the beginning there were at least some evidence-based justifications for operations in Afghanistan:

  • fact - Al Quaeda planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks
  • fact - Al Quaeda were in Afghanistan
  • fact - Bin Laden, head of Al Quada was there, too
  • fact - the Taliban were aiding, sheltering and protecting Al Quaeda.

You can argue about tactics, but the man who planned and executed the world's worst terrorist atrocity was there and if the USA wanted to go after him and eliminate his organisation there was a pretty clearly defined mission there. Now, when troops die, people ask why they were put in harm's way. Then, you could have given a clear answer.

With Bin Laden still on the loose, subsequently diverting massive resources towards an unlikely Iraqi threat based on flaky evidence still seems perverse to me. Nick Cohen and others have argued passionately and, I think, correctly that Saddam's Iraq was a monstrous dictatorship and that Saddam's fall was a liberation. But the arguments for war weren't based on the need save the Iraqi people from a vile tyrant - a necessity which had been just as urgent for decades, but had never been a US priority before the unconnected events of September 11th 2001. The primary justification for war in Iraq was the immediate and serious threat Saddam posed to the West. In fact, however evil Saddam was, no evidence for a substantial threat has ever been forthcoming.

This brings to mind one of my all-time favourite Bertrand Russell quotes:

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake.

Russell was talking about religion and the fallacy that if somebody can't absolutely disprove an assertion about the supernatural, then he or she ought to accept it or at least give it serious consideration, in the absence of anything approaching convincing evidence. I think that Russell's attitude towards evidence and the burden of proof ought, if applied to the politics of intervening in Afghanistan and Iraq, would have been a far better starting point than a decision the muddy and perhaps deliberate confusion and conflation of Afghanistan with Iraq, WMD and Saddam's unproven links with the 9/11 bombers.

Of course, being evidence-based doesn't make a policy good or bad - even when all the facts are clear and agreed on, what you do about them is a matter of judgement. For example, if the decision on whether or not to invade Iraq had been based on the well documented human rights abuses in Iraq, there would have been heartbreaking decisions to be made - how many dead service personnel, how many grieving families in the West would be a price worth paying to stop the routine oppression, torture and killing of thousands of innocents in Iraq?

In a wider context, evidence-based policy-making doesn't magically solve all political problems - even if you have a clear evidence base for how much taxes revenue is needed, say, to stabilise the national debt, the question of who pays what is a partly subjective decision about how to best balance the different interests of millions of different taxpayers with widely differing circumstances, resources and needs. Evidence based politics - necessary, but not sufficient.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Great expectations

This is getting a little old and I've no idea if it's a spoof, genuine or the truth embellished, but it's a great example of someone with a shameless sense of entitlement:

I would like to catch up as I am working on a really exciting project at the moment and need a logo designed. Basically something representing peer to peer networking. I have to have something to show prospective clients this week so would you be able to pull something together in the next few days? I will also need a couple of pie charts done for a 1 page website. If deal goes ahead there will be some good money in it for you.


meeting somone determined to introduce him to reality:

Disregarding the fact that you have still not paid me for work I completed earlier this year despite several assertions that you would do so, I would be delighted to spend my free time creating logos and pie charts for you based on further vague promises of future possible payment.


David then illustrates his point with a suitable pie chart, along with increasingly creative ways of saying "no" to somebody who doesn't understand any part of that word. Read the full version here and hope that when you're next confronted by outrageous cheek you can respond with creative irony rather than being left speechless by effrontery. Ratita at the Metafilter Weblog found this.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Der gute Mensch von Bonn

The general uselessness of banks had, of course, been noted long before the current financial crisis:

A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining and wants it back the minute it begins to rain.

Mark Twain

One German bank employee recently decided it would be a good idea for her bank to actually meet people's needs, rather than leaving them to get wet. Of course, she was punished, to encourage the others:

Just when you'd heard about enough about the halfhearted non-apology from Goldman Sachs Chair Lloyd Blankfein and the attempts by Wall Street and big banks to quash new reforms that might save us from the recklessness that could lead to yet another meltdown, here comes the story of a banker to be thankful for.

Of course, instead of a big bonus, she got a 22-month suspended sentence for her deeds.

The 62-year-old branch head of a German bank admitted to using the bank accounts of wealthy customers to float struggling ones so that they didn't have to pay exorbitant overdraft fees. The unnamed woman was likened by her lawyer to the title character in the 1939 Bertolt Brecht play Mother Courage and Her Children...

Thanks to the Buzzflash blog for that one. Justice has now been seen to done. According to Spiegel Online:

The woman has now joined the ranks of the poor she once tried to protect. She is living in a small apartment with her ailing mother. The bulk of her meager early retirement pension is being withheld to cover her €1.1 million debt to the bank.

and to the victors, the spoils:

According to the Office for National Statistics, the sum paid in bonuses to UK bankers in the first five months of this year – during a belt-tightening era – was £7.6 billion.

That last quote was from those well-known lefty class warriors at the Telegraph. Further comment is, I think, superfluous.

Monday, 23 November 2009

The customer is king

Over one million consumers are awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court this week which could see the return of millions of pounds charged in unfair overdraft fees, however, there are fears the decision could put an end to free banking services...

If the court finds in the OFT’s favour then banks have threatened to recoup billions of pounds in revenue by starting to charge their customers for services that have traditionally been free.

It says here. In the 21st Century a combination of ruthless competition and smart, savvy consumers ensure that organisations can't afford to take their customers for granted. Yeah, right. New corporate slogans guys? How about:

Let them hate me, so long as they fear me! (Tiberius)


No-one likes us and we don’t care. (Millwall FC)

UK banks - worth every penny of the £1.5 trillion taxpayers spent bailing them out.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Gardening tip of the day

The Mandelbulb (narcissus mandelsonii) will grow almost anywhere and flourishes in dark shade as well as in the full sunlight of publicity. The flower emerges in many different shapes and colours that can bloom vigorously in many soil types. The scientific name of the Mandelbulb derives from the Greek legend of Narcissus, who looked into a pool, saw his reflection and fell in love with himself.

The Mandelbulb does best in rich soil and is most at home on the yachts of tycoons and oligarchs, although with a judicious application of interest-free loans, it will also do well in Europe or Westminster.

Being easy to grow, once established, the Mandelbulb will return year after year. Some regard the plant as an annoying weed, which is very difficult to control. The Mandelbulb’s foliage is highly invasive, smothering surrounding vegetation by casting a dark shadow.

Like all Narcissus varieties, the Mandelbulb is highly toxic, containing high levels of the alkaloid poison lycorine. The Mandelbulb can easily be confused with an onion, thereby leading to incidents of accidental poisoning.

Only kidding. In fact, the Mandelbulb is a 3D version of the Mandelbrot Set. To be precise it's not the true 3D version of the Mandelbrot set (something which was hitherto thought impossible), although it does suggest that a true 3D version is possible. Until then, click here for the images which are nonetheless pretty impressive. Originally found on Slashdot Science.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Change and decay in all around I see

Which mythical hero's conveyance links the Sugarbabes with a river and George Washington's Axe? It sounds like one of those recondite questions from Round Britain Quiz. The correct answer is "The Ship of Theseus", a paradox that raises the question of whether an object which has had all its component parts replaced remains fundamentally the same object.

O, Wikipedia, abide with me!

40 candles = pants on fire

Forty years of lies, tits and an all-round lowering of our standards, morality and expectations.

Yes, it's The Sun again, in this tribute from Chicken Yoghurt. Surely, things can only get better? Oh dear, it seems not...

Having attacked Gordon Brown personally last week and came off the worst for it, this week the Sun seems to have decided to stand on surer ground, by attacking Labour on crime. Problem is, it can't seem to do so without telling some whopping great lies...

Read the sorry story at Obselete.


Friday 13th seems to have been a good day to bury bad news, at least for News International. The Sun had been relentlessly attacking Gordon Brown's crass blunder of mis-spelling a bereaved mother's name when writing a letter of condolence after her son's death in Afghanistan. Then a screenshot of The Sun's own web site emerged, which seemed to show that The Sun itself had manged to get the mother's name wrong. This got me thinking:

I'm also curious to know the truth about The Sun's conduct in the "lettergate" affair. If this is genuine and this post at Harry's Place is correct, The Sun's own web site managed to mis-spell the bereaved mother's name. Since the paper's already told us what an unforgivable blunder it is to make such a mistake, I'd be interested to know whether The Sun intend a) to apologise for being caught red handed or b) send in some high-powered lawyers to challenge the libellous allegation that they made such an insensitive mistake. So far News International have been uncharacteristically silent.

Well, last Friday, with as little fanfare as possible, The Sun 'fessed up. I haven't been following the TV and radio news obsessively, but I've heard a fair selection of broadcasts and haven't heard a thing about the admission in the news headlines since. So I guess The Sun has got away with it again. The original attacks made the top slot even on the BBC news, so everybody remembers that Brown (who at least has the excuse that his day job is trying to run the country) blundered. The fact that The Sun also blundered hasn't been a news story. But, whether anybody notices or not, The Sun's clumsy gaffe blows their "story" out of the water - if you think this was a terrible, crass mistake for which there was no excuse, then The Sun is as guilty as Gordon Brown. If you think it's terribly hurtful, but understandable on the grounds of poor eyesight, poor handwriting and the pressures of high office, then the last week's news headlines were full of a partisan non-story.

Say what you like about The Sun - in the race to the bottom, it's a winner. Just when you thought that journalistic standards couldn't get any lower, it gets further down than you'd think humanly possible. For me, the big story isn't the one smeared all over the headlines last week - it's the fact that the UK's best-selling newspaper is a woeful national embarrassment. And it's just turned 40. For the lowdown on forty years of spiteful, inaccurate tabloid drivel, see this tribute. And, just when you thought it was safe to go back to the gutter, part 2.

Monday, 16 November 2009

It is a truth universally acknowledged...

... that:

1) Triangular sandwiches taste better than square ones.
2) At the end of every party there is always a girl crying.
3) One of the most awkward things that can happen in a pub is when your pint-to-toilet cycle gets synchronised with a complete stranger.
4) You've never quite sure whether it's ok to eat green crisps.

More observations about random unbiquity can be found here. Lazy post for the evening completed, job done...

Friday, 13 November 2009

Cocoa, art and irony

From the nation that brought you spherical houses comes another tasty slice of strangeness in the shape of the Droste Effect:

The Droste effect is a Dutch term for a specific type of recursive picture.

An image exhibiting the Droste effect depicts a smaller version of the image within itself in a recursive manner.

In theory, the picture in picture effect continues deeper into the picture ad infinitum, but it really only goes as far as the image resolution will allow while still being visible, but it still has the feeling of being never ending....

The effect is named after a particular image that appeared in various forms on the tins and boxes of Droste cocoa powder, one of the main Dutch brands.

It displays a nurse carrying a serving tray with a cup of hot chocolate and a box of Droste cocoa depicting the same image...

The brand’s effect, maintained for decades, became a household notion. Reportedly, poet and columnist Nico Scheepmaker introduced wider usage of the term in the late 1970’s

In the 1950’s, one of the famous graphic artisits Maurits Cornelis Escher.C. Escher took the Droste effect to another level with his incredible drawings, and mapped images to a spiral.

Click here for images of the Droste Effect in action.

Meanwhile, breaking news from the World Memory Championships, being held in London. According to a report overheard on the BBC World Service, one of the British contenders for the title of World Memory Champion always wears a lucky hat during memory competitions. Sadly, he forgot to bring it along this year...

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Grand Designs and A Place In The Sun

Following on from yesterday's post, a little more information about Holland's spherical houses can be found by clicking on this link. It confirms that the top half of the sphere was the living room, bathroom and kitchen, with the bedrooms in the bottom half, which I'd guessed from the position of the portholes. It also states that the houses were constructed in the 1980's not the '70's, as my original sources asserted.

I've not yet come across anything written by people who've actually lived in the Bolwoningen, which is a shame, as I'm curious to know how good / bad /impractical such radical dwellings really are. On paper, the shape seems like a good use of space, with the minimum surface area / footprint for a given amount of interior space, but there's the problem of fitting furniture and appliances with lots of straight edges into a space full of curving walls and ceilings.

On an unrelated topic, I'm also curious to know the truth about The Sun's conduct in the "lettergate" affair. If this is genuine and this post at Harry's Place is correct, The Sun's own web site managed to mis-spell the bereaved mother's name. Since the paper's already told us what an unforgivable blunder it is to make such a mistake, I'd be interested to know whether The Sun intend a) to apologise for being caught red handed or b) send in some high-powered lawyers to challenge the libellous allegation that they made such an insensitive mistake. So far News International have been uncharacteristically silent.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Property bubbles

When I were a lad, the 21st Century was a far distant time when we'd all be living in space-age pods. In 1970s Holland, an architect called Dries Kreijkamp was already building the future, in the shape of spherical houses with portholes. Sadly for those of us who believed that the future would be exciting and resemble science fiction, his globular Bolwoningen houses never caught on. Now they've made belated headlines after appearing in Travel and Leisure's list of the world's 15 ugliest buildings.

To hell with Travel and Leisure - I kind of like them in a retro-nostalgic kind of way. More interesting than a boring box by Barratt Homes, anyway. Links to more pictures of Kreijkamp's pods for living here and here.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Tube stops

Here are the results of some idle surfing. First, from over eighty years ago, the streets of London in living colour (thanks to Fearful Symmetry on the MetaFilter community weblog for finding that one).

Second, an infamous clip of Michael Palin singing along with Russian Pacific Fleet Ensemble. Compare and contrast Palin cheerfully murdering the tune with this atmospheric version of Polushko Polie on the solo balailaika.

And finally, from the ridiculous to the sublime - Bach's "Little" Fuge in G Minor, BWV 578, building from the first simple notes into a thing of intricate splendour.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Treason and plot

We celebrated bonfire night by inviting a few friends round and letting off a few fireworks in the back garden, with baked potatoes to keep the November chill out. The "Vote for a Change" party was a little more ambitious:

A super-sized duck house resembling the one in the garden of Sir Peter Viggers MP was towed up the Thames to the Houses of Parliament on Thursday afternoon...

The raft carrying the duck house set out from Butler's Wharf shortly before 3pm accompanied by 'ducklings' – a small speed boat with people wearing duck masks. Throughout the journey the flotilla was shadowed by the Port of London Authority Harbourmaster's launch to ensure that a threat to set fire to the duck house opposite the MPs' terrace was not carried out.

Being 5 November the demonstrators had originally planned a fireworks display to accompany the 'bonfire'.

Read all about it here.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Brown study

According to researchers at the University of New South Wales:

An Australian psychology expert who has been studying emotions has found being grumpy makes us think more clearly.

In contrast to those annoying happy types, miserable people are better at decision-making and less gullible, his experiments showed.

According to the BBC, the researchers found that dour individuals make fewer mistakes and can communicate more successfully than cheerful chappies. Personally, I'm skeptical - it doesn't seem to have worked for Gordon Brown...

Monday, 19 October 2009

Losing the plot

I had a worrying episode of absent mindedness today. I was out with my three year old son when an elderly lady became quite smitten with him (he is rather a fine looking child, though I say so myself). After telling me what a delightful little boy I had, she went on to tell me he had lovely strawberry blond hair and asked whether I thought he'd keep it. Being rather sparse and shiny on top myself, I told her that baldness usually skips a generation, so he had a pretty good chance of keeping his fetching locks.

It was only several hours later, at dinner, that I realised that her comment was nothing to do with the fact that I was bald (which is the sort of personal remark you wouldn't expect from someone of that generation), but she was simply asking whether I thought my son would retain his current hair colour as he grew up. I clearly need to get out more before I completely lose the knack of making small talk...

We're all in this together 2

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the bank...

Royal Bank of Scotland, the same people who sacked 15,000 staff worldwide last year, are set to hand £4bn in bonuses- mainly to its investment banking arm....

Remember that, following last year's bail-out, 70% of RBS is owned by the taxpayer. That means that the taxpayer will foot the bill for 70% (£2.8bn) of those bonuses.

Two weeks ago, at the Conservative Party conference, George Osborne showed us where his priorities are as he reminded us that "we're-all-in-this-together", unveiling his urgent plans to reform incapacity benefits that would save "more than £1bn over the next Parliament".

This is while 65,000 homes will have been repossessed by the end of 2009, and while tens of thousands of people are seeing their final salary pension schemes slashed and mangled because of City investments going tits up.

At RBS they're all-in-this-together alright.

Courtesy of Hagley Road To Ladywood and The Independent on Sunday Risks nationalized, profits privatized, bubbly all round in the board room ... are you feeling the warm glow of solidarity yet?

Sunday, 18 October 2009


Kids nowadays – rude, gobby, no respect. Are the people who say these things right, or are they just a bunch of crabby old whiners?

I reckon that some of these views are just unreasonable grumbling by people who’ve forgotten what it is to be young, demanding a return to the days when children were cowed by fear of adults and respected grown-up’s ability to enforce their authority by force. Perhaps a golden age of civility never really existed. Here’s the case for the defence, put by Oda, a rather good* blogger I who recently stumbled across:
“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for
authority, they show disrespect to their elders…. They no longer
rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents,
chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their
legs, and are tyrants over their teachers.”

“The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have
no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all
restraint. They talk as if they alone knew everything and what passes
for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for girls, they are
forward, immodest and unwomanly in speech, behaviour and dress.”
Quote: Well, both are commonly attributed to Socrates.
Some things never change.

Maybe, then, we just need a bit of perspective before deciding that we’re sliding into a new age of barbarism. There is, however, some anecdotal evidence that things may have changed for the worse over the last few years. A lot of what I hear and read from teachers suggests that trying to maintain order and teach has become an uphill struggle in recent years. Teachers from abroad, in particular, tend to complain that British kids are more surly, uninterested and disrespectful than children back home.

Of course, there may be other factors at work here – lack of support for teachers when they try to take a firm stand, trying to work in a state of permanent revolution, where new teaching initiatives come and go and targets are constantly shifting, the focus on league tables and the pressure to teach to the test rather than just teach. Maybe the kids are no worse than they were, but they now sense that teachers are weakened, under stress, undermined by their superiors and no longer valued as anything more than production line workers tasked with turning out economically useful human widgets at the lowest possible cost.

In such a competitive, test-obsessed atmosphere, maybe kids are getting the message that “the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on … trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each others’ heels” (that was how John Start Mill described an ideology fashionable his time which is still, alas, alive and kicking today). Not a great environment in which to nurture respect, consideration and empathy.

There are some kinds of respect we could do without. I don’t think we need any more respect for authority, which as often as not is the same as respect for power or for the prejudices of those with power. It’s one-way respect without dialogue - “'shut up', he explained”, as someone once wrote.

A more useful sort of respect simply consists of a bit of basic empathy and recognising that other people have rights and feelings. It’s the opposite to the celebration of “trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each others’ heels” as humanity’s natural state. As always, The Golden Rule (“do to others what you would like to be done to you”, or at least “do not do to others what you would not like to be done to you”) is a good rule of thumb.

Here’s another post from Oda with a thought-provoking anecdote about respect:
So I went on a bus. And accidentally went ahead of an elderly gentleman.
I said accidentally, because that was what it was. The bus-stop was full of people, I had forgotten my glasses, and I was late for something. This man then started to yell at me. This is fair enough, I did after-all cut in before him. I said something apologetic, told him I hadn’t seen him, and let him move in ahead of me. But he continued to yell.
Apparently i am personally responsible for all that is wrong with the youth of today with their bad manners, teen pregnancy, drinking, skiving, and lack of respect for the elderly.
Wait a sec… Respect for the elderly? This man was in no way old enough to have fended off the nazis singlehandedly, had a far as I was aware not himself produced any of my textbooks, was from his vocabulary not much to look up to in the form of intellectual capacity, had just said that I was going to get drunk and then pregnant ENTIRELY based on my age and an accidental queue-jump, and he demanded respect. Not as a human being, but as a member of a group(Of which there are some members have the greatest respect, but that is by the by), and that his belonging to this group gave him the right to publicly insult members of another group. Due to a hierarchy of status and inherent worth between them.
No matter which groups are considered more or less worth others, and no matter how old the person having these opinions are, I have very little respect for that sort of thinking.
Of course, I could have confronted him with these opinions and drawn lined between his group-hierarchy way of thinking to far less pleasant systems of discrimination, and thus challenged his world-view, perhaps brought a new perspective to him, or have his opinions explained clearer, put in a context…
Some would say that this would be cruel to an old man who is set in his ways and who will never change his ways of thinking. Or in other words that his opinions are of little importance since he is going to die soon anyway, so we might as well humour him. That would be respectful to the elderly.
So I showed him that respect.

Good point, well made, I thought.

*Well, very good in English. After a bit of time with Google Translate, I might also be able to offer a valid opinion on the bits written in Norwegian.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Pea lunacy

I found myself watching Masterchef: The Professionals last night. Well, not quite watching it, more being aware of it happening, in a room where someone else was watching. One bizarre moment caught my attention, though. A grumpy Michelin-starred chef was explaining exactly how one of his dishes had to be prepared and presented. The individual peas in this dish, he said, must be peeled. Ordinary people just take the peas out of the pod. This man had decided that in a “fine dining environment”* if you don’t remove the membrane from around every individual pea, you might as well sling the whole dish in the bin.

If a chef can insist, with a straight face, on the importance of every pea on the plate being peeled, some might call him a driven perfectionist. I’d call him a madman with borderline OCD. I love food and I admire skilled, imaginative cooks but, for crying out loud, get a grip. Life really is too short to peel a pea.

*Michel Roux junior could be considerably less irritating than the average celebrity chef if he would only stop repeating the poncy expression “fine dining”.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

I wouldn't be surprised

France has the best quality of life out of Europe's biggest countries, while Britain has the worst despite having the highest incomes, a study says.

I've no idea how rigorous this study is, but it contrasts with years of hearing British politicians subjecting their continental counterparts to tedious lectures on how they need to modernise, deregulate and become more like Britain. Maybe the British way of doing things wasn't that impressive after all - perhaps all we've been doing is running furiously round like hamsters in a wheel just to stay in the same place - so much for Anglo-Saxon "efficiency":

It revealed that Britain had the highest net household income ... but much of this is spent on a higher cost of living.

And of course, those high incomes are taking a battering:

The report warned that Britain's quality of life was likely to fall further because of the recession, which has pushed unemployment to nearly 2.5 million and will likely result in public spending cuts.

Read more here (originally spotted by The Null Device).

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

We're all in this together

The shadow chancellor told the party conference in Manchester: "I want to make this absolutely clear - you're all in this together.

"Me? I'm err... Well, I'm fine actually. I've got a safe seat, a really super pension, two large houses and considerable personal wealth. You, on the other hand, are deeply, horribly, terrifyingly not fine."

As reported in The Daily Mash. As usual, they get to the heart of the matter, rather than faffing about like most "serious" political commentators.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Street art

There was an interesting programme on the radio recently about graffiti - I was busy and missed most of it, but it got me thinking. There are heated arguments over whether graffiti is mere vandalism or whether it can be considered "street art". I don't think there's an absolute right or wrong answer to this one but, on balance, I think graffiti's a bad thing.

The "street art" argument has some merit - there have been works of graffiti which display genuine skill, wit and artistic merit, works of imagination produced by people whose parents didn't have the resources to put them through art school, people defiantly expressing their individuality and imagination in an indifferent world which doesn't value their talents.

Leaving artistic merit aside for a moment, though, I can't help thinking that a lot of the major fans of "street art" are relatively privileged people, slumming it. Admiring street art may increase your edgy cool factor by several orders of magnitude down the the fashionable bar where art school wannabes, or in media creative types go after a hard day's thinking outside the box (or as graffiti artist Banksy put it "think from outside the box, collapse the box and take a [expletive deleted] knife to it").

But I suspect that most of the middle class people who fervently promote "street art" have the luxury of having their exposure to it controlled. For real poor people, living in run-down areas, outbreaks of graffiti are probably less welcome - spray-painted tags are just another ugly assault on an already bleak and depressing environment, along with dumped refuse, vandalised bus shelters, boarded up windows and other signs of neglect and decay. There are a lot of people whose street cred is tied up with a love of street art, but who go home every night to clean, well-furnished homes in clean, prosperous neighbourhoods and who wake up in the morning to find that nothing around them has been torched, kicked in or spray-painted in the night.

As a rule, I don't think that graffiti improves a neighborhood and I'm pretty certain that most people who can afford to live somewhere which isn't covered in graffiti, do so. An American advertising executive once said that no scene had ever been improved by the presence of a billboard (which is why few advertising executives live in neighbourhoods commanding a view of a massive advertising hoarding). Likewise, I can't think of many neighbourhoods which would be much improved by a rash of spray painted tags. In both cases, it's just unwanted visual noise, which most people don't want to see, in much the same way as they don't want to hear the local teenagers' taste in rap amplified to painful volumes via the open windows of some boy-racermobile pimped with an earsplitting sound system.

Sometimes a piece of graffiti can make you stop and smile for a moment - I remember some skilfully-painted murals in London featuring trains and the cryptic line "far away is close at hand in images of elsewhere". But I wouldn't want to see it coming to a wall near me soon.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Jane Austen improved

As Neal Stephenson pointed out, the standard excuse for using emoticons is to convey the "tone of voice" which may be missing from mere written words. Let's try to improve a famous passage by adding a conversational cue by smiley:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife ;-).

I think we can all agree that the passage is a lot easier to understand now, isn't it? :-P (that, by the way, is meta-irony, or somthing of the sort).

Friday, 2 October 2009

Smiley happy people

I'm feeling middle aged. In fact, I'm just about as old as the smiley face, first designed by one Harvey Ball in 1963 whilst working as a freelance artist for a life assurance company. Like me, the smiley has irritated people ever since, although unlike me, the smiley symbol has become known to millions, both in its original form and as in its online incarnation as the emoticon :-) or :), along with countless variations on the theme.

As far back as 1993, Neal Stephenson was waging war against the unstoppable tide of emoticons. I fear it's a lost battle, but like the Spartans at Thermopylae, at least Stephenson had a few choice and pithy words to say before being overwhelmed:

The online world has its own cliches and truisms, none so haggard as the belief that reliable written communication is impossible without frequent use of emoticons, better known as the "smileys." Emoticons are nothing more than characters that look like a face when viewed sideways. The original smiley is :-), but there are innumerable variations, such as :-0 ;-) :-( 8-) :-{) :-{)>, and each can signify anything from facial hair to a particular emotional state. Emoticons are the electronic equivalent of spin doctors: commonly inserted at the end of a sentence that is meant to be interpreted as sarcasm, or, in general, whenever the writer fears his or her prose may be about to jump the iron rails of literalism.
With the eerie uniformity of airport cultists, emoticon users all proffer the same rationale for the smiley tic: since the streams of ascii characters flowing across the Internet (usually described as "cold," "mechanistic," etc.) cannot carry body language or tone, the missing cues must be supplied through punctuation. The tendency of writers to bungle their attempts at sarcasm, and of readers to bungle the detection of it, invariably leads (so the argument goes) to hurt feelings, which in turn leads to network "flame wars" in which people insult each other in extravagant terms that would never be used face- to-face. Irony, it seems, is like nitroglycerin: too tricky to be good for much, and so best left in the hands of fanatics or trained professionals.
Never addressed by such people is the question of how humans have managed to communicate with the written word for thousands of years without strewing crudely fashioned ideograms across their parchments. It is as if the written word were a cutting-edge technology without useful precedents. Some hackers actually go so far as to maintain, with a straight face (:-I), that words on a computer screen are different from words on paper--implying that writers of e-mail have nothing useful to learn from Dickens or Hemingway, and that time spent reading old books might be better spent coming up with new emoticons.
Splendid stuff -read Stephenson's article in full here.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Ghost riders in the sky

I must be getting old, tired or have too much on my mind lately. A couple of posts ago I quoted from a description of a squirrel attacking a bat, which included this passage:

This is pure speculation, but it's almost as if the squirrel was seeking to maim the bat in some way. Maim it or kill it such that it couldn't fly.

And the phrase "Maim it or kill it such that it couldn't fly" slipped right under my pedantry radar - if I'd been half awake I'd have questioned whether the implied alternative - to kill a bat such that it could fly was possible outside of movies featuring undead vampire bats.

In a roundabout way this got me thinking about things which can't fly any more. Being a bit of a old aeroplane anorak, I love to see vintage aircraft doing their stuff at airshows. There are lots of old planes lovingly restored to flying condition by enthusiasts, but there are a few aviation classics which are forever consigned to that great hanger in the sky, with no surviving examples remaining. Here are a couple which are gone for ever, but which would have looked sensational in the air:

This is the Dornier Do X passenger flying boat which first flew in 1929. It could carry 100 passengers on short haul flights, or 66 long distance. It was cutting edge technology in its day, although even with 12 engines (six facing forwards and six behind in "pusher" configuration) it was underpowered and couldn't fly any higher than a puny 500 metres (1,650 feet). But it looked magnificent, a flying ocean liner in art deco silver. Only three were ever built - the great depression did a lot to end the career of this luxurious Flugschiff (flying ship). The last surviving example ended up in a museum in Berlin and was destroyed by an RAF air raid in 1943.

And here's the Handley Page HP42 airliner, first flown in 1930. Not such a cutting-edge design, its conservative biplane configuration was mocked by Anthony Fokker, who described it as an aeroplane with a built-in headwind (Fokker was a pioneer of cantilevered monoplane wings and his Fokker FVII trimotor monoplanes had been some of the most popular airliners of the 1920's). However, I think it had certain stately, if ungainly splendour and, by all accounts it was a reliable and well-liked aircraft. Eight were built, often based in Cairo to cover Imperial Airways' Indian and African routes. The service ended with the outbreak of war, when all operational HP42s were commandeered by the RAF. By the early 1940's all had been lost due either to accident, wear and tear or damage by gales.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Faith group persecuted

Tony Blair, the Pope, former Archbishop Cormac Murphy O'Connor, the Bishop of Rochester - all of them have warned of the perils of "aggressive secularism". Any sceptics out there who still doubt the gravity of the threat should take heed of this appalling example of the faithful being persecuted:

Tesco has been accused of religious discrimination after the company ordered the founder of a Jedi religion to remove his hood or leave a branch of the supermarket in north Wales.

Daniel Jones, founder of the religion inspired by the Star Wars films, says he was humiliated and victimised for his beliefs following the incident at a Tesco store in Bangor.

So says the Guardian. Is nothing sacred?

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Squirrel vs fruit bat

It's one of those great unanswered questions we've all asked ourselves. If a squirrel got into a fight with a fruit bat, which one would win? Now, thanks the BBC, we can stop losing sleep over that one - the squirrel would totally kick the bat's ass:

A squirrel has been seen attempting to savage a fruit bat to death....

"It became apparent that there was an altercation happening between the squirrel and the bat, something I'd never seen before or ever heard of."

"The squirrel had the bat in its mouth, or it was at least biting it, and then the bat went quiet for a while and then starting flapping its wings again."

"The second time it started vocalising and flapping, the squirrel released it and the bat fell out of the tree and literally fell into these small saplings right above my head, and ultimately to my feet...."

"The bat was injured and damaged in very specific places. This is pure speculation, but it's almost as if the squirrel was seeking to maim the bat in some way. Maim it or kill it such that it couldn't fly."

Mental. Read the full, shocking story here. Why a squirrel would behave in such an antisocial way, I can't say, although I wouldn't be surprised to discover that the rodent in question had been wearing a tiny England shirt and was last seen urinating into a shop doorway.

Saturday, 19 September 2009


One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.
(quote attributed to Stalin, although he probably never actually said it)

The other day, I heard an obituary of Norman Borlaug (March 25, 1914 – September 12, 2009) on the radio. Not a household name and not a name that rang many bells with me. Borlaug was an agronomist from Iowa, whose work resulted in the widespread use of improved, disease-resistant varieties of wheat. So far, so dull and worthy. But one line in the obituary made me sit up and listen.

The impact of his improved crop varieties in hungry countries was such, said the presenter, that Boralug has been credited with saving more lives than any other human being in history. Do you remember what you were doing when you heard that Princess Diana had died? Elvis? Michael Jackson? If you're old enough, JFK? How many people will remember what they were doing when Norman Borlaug died? How many even knew who he was? Yet if he saved even a small fraction of the lives he's been credited with saving, every schoolchild on earth should have heard of him. It's astonishing the things that escape our attention. Here's more on Borlaug's remarkable career, at Wikipedia.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

The Penrith Tea Rooms, MK11

In my last post I regretted the fact that phrase "cock and bull story" many not really have originated just down the road in Stony Stratford, but here's a definite fact about Stony. A classic moment in one of the finest motion pictures known to humanity was filmed in Stony Stratford. Enjoy this YouTube compilation of the top ten Withnail and I moments and know that the final clip in the "Penrith Tea Rooms" was filmed on location, not in the Lake District, but in Stony Stratford:

Maybe they should erect a statue of Richard E Grant in the high street, clutching a bottle...

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Cock and Bull

Apparently, the phrase "a cock and bull story" originated about seven miles from where I live, as the Robin flies, in the little town of Stony Stratford:

Stony is probably most famous for being the original source of the well known English catchphrase "a Cock and Bull Story", which began when tales were exchanged between drunken punters of the 2 hotels, The Cock and The Bull are both in the High Street and are just 20 yards from each other.

Well, so says the blog at The Garden of Earthly Delights. Unfortunately, no sooner do you come across a fascinating local factoid than some killjoy blows it out of the water:

It is an appealing story but, regrettably, it is little more than that. There's no evidence whatsoever to connect the two inns with the phrase, apart from the coincidence of the two names.

Whisper it not in Stony Stratford if you want to get out alive, but it's more likely that the phrase comes from old folk tales that featured magical animals. The early 17th century French term 'coq-a-l'âne' was glossed in Randle Cotgrave's A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, 1611 as meaning:

An incoherent story, passing from one subject to another.

Bang goes another interesting piece local "knowledge" I was about to bore people senseless with...

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Doing the right thing?

Somebody drove into my mother's car recently. She had parked outside her local sorting office to pick up a piece of post the postman hadn't been able to deliver. A young driver got into the car which had been parked in front of hers and tried to drive off. Unfortunately, he accidentally put his car into reverse instead of first gear and backed into mum's car.

There were two witnesses, the passenger in mum's car who had been waiting for her to come out of the sorting office and a postman. When mum came out, the young man apologised sheepishly and admitted that he'd made a mistake - apparently he'd just changed cars and hadn't got used to the fact that the reverse gear on his new car was on next to first gear, the gears on his old car having been arranged differently.

Details were exchanged and it seemed like a fairly straightforward case - a fender bender with no injuries, no dispute over liability. Later that day, my mother was surprised by a visit from a representative of the young man's insurers, Quinn Direct. This individual tried to persuade her to authorise Quinn Direct, rather than mum's own insurers to deal with the claim.

Fortunately, mum had already contacted her own insurers and started the insurance ball rolling and didn't sign or commit to anything. I say "fortunately" because Quinn's record when it comes to "third party capture" (the practice of the insurers of the person who caused the accident doorstepping the not-at-fault party and trying to take over the running of the claim from the not-at-fault party's insurers) doesn't inspire confidence:

Kimberley Harrison suffered severe facial injuries when another car crashed head-on with hers in March 2008.

She was surprised - and angry - to receive frequent calls from an agent of the other driver’s insurer the day after she left hospital.

“From the day I got home, the insurance company phoned me and were pressurising me not to take it any further - not to seek legal advice. I was really shocked.

“He was really forceful, like a bully - really trying to push me to close a deal,” she said.

Once she instructed lawyers, Kimberley said the insurance company in question, Quinn Direct, managed to get hold of her medical reports.

“They posed as someone working for my solicitor in order to obtain my medical records. I had no idea insurance companies would behave in that way.”

A whistleblower who used to work for Quinn Direct reinforced the impression of dodgy dealing:

Tommy Scott is a former claims handler for Quinn Direct. He told BBC Radio 4’s Money Box it was his job to “doorstep” third parties, often within hours of the accident.

“My sole job was to capture those clients - to stop them getting independent legal advice, and try to settle direct in their living room,” he said.

Quinn Direct have denied the allegations:

It said its “pro-active” approach is “based on paying fair compensation” quickly, and that third parties “appreciate” the service.

The Association of British Insurers don't appear to think there's anything wrong with the practice:

“It is the right thing for insurers to be doing, rather than requiring claimants to drag them through the courts,” said Justin Jacobs, assistant director of motor insurance at the ABI.

Despite the denials by Quinn and the ABI's "nothing to see here, move along" statement, I wouldn't be happy to see a member of my family, involved in an accident that was somebody else's fault, handing control of the claim over to the insurers of the people who caused the accident. I called the guy from Quinn Direct and told him to refrain from any further contact with my mother, who is proceeding with the claim through her own insurers.

To play devil's advocate for a moment, there could be some general justification for letting the at-fault person's insurers take over the claim. If those insurers were selfless, kindly people, just trying to do the best for everybody involved they could, in principle, settle the claim more quickly and efficiently with lower legal costs without anybody involved - apart from the lawyers- being worse off. But that's a very big "if". And even if you assume that the people doing the doorstepping have the best of intentions, are they any good? My admittedly unscientific on-line research into what people say about Quinn Direct's claims service has turned up quite a few disgruntled comments. The most telling comment about the not-so-mighty Quinn compared them to the budget airline Ryanair - cheap and not very cheerful. Why would anyone want to have their claim handled by a company acting for the other party in their insurance claim, a company who don't even seem to have much of a reputation for handling their own claims well?

Doorstepping accident victims and trying to pressure them into handing over control of their claim sounds despicable. If Quinn Direct, the other insurers who do this and the ABI want to convince people that it really is OK, I suggest that they put their case to some independent bodies - say, the Citizen's Advice Bureau or Which? magazine. If the CAB and Which? look at the evidence and come out with press releases agreeing that you'd be best off signing over control of your insurance claim to the insurers of the guy who just ran into the back of you, then I might just reconsider. Before they get round to writing those press releases, I'll also be interested to hear their views on hell freezing over.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Tale of the unexpected

Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell (known as Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell) is getting an honorary degree from the Open University today. The award is for 'academic and scholarly distinction.'

Jocelyn Bell Burnell is best known for having discovered of pulsars, (along with her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish) back in 1967. There can't be many humans alive who have discovered something quite so strange and unexpected. To quote from a Wikipedia definition of a pulsar:

Pulsars are highly magnetized, rotating neutron stars that emit a beam of electromagnetic radiation. The observed periods of their pulses range from 1.4 milliseconds to 8.5 seconds.[my italics] The radiation can only be observed when the beam of emission is pointing towards the Earth. This is called the lighthouse effect and gives rise to the pulsed nature that gives pulsars their name. Because neutron stars are very dense objects, the rotation period and thus the interval between observed pulses is very regular. For some pulsars, the regularity of pulsation is as precise as an atomic clock.

An entire collapsed star spinning around in seconds, or even milliseconds? Who would have thought it before one was actually discovered? J B S Haldane was right:

I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

It must be a great feeling to have your achievements recognised with an honorary degree, but to just be the first human to discover something wholly new and novel has to be off the scale - that must be about as good as it gets, ever.

Here are some pulsars doing their thing:

And the unoriginal but obligatory burst of Vangelis doing his electronic thing back in the '70's:

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Turn over your papers

I've just done a health and safety exam. Here are a few of the questions presented to candidates:

You have witnessed a serious accident on your site, and are interviewed by an HSE inspector. Should you:

A: tell the inspector what your mates say you should tell him
B; ask your supervisor what you should say to the inspector
C: co-operate fully with the inspector and tell him exactly what you say
D: don't tell him anything

Why should a high visibility vest be worn when working on roads?

A: So road operators and plant users can see you
B: Because you were told to do so
C: Because it will keep you warm
D: So that your mates can see you

A colleague has drilled holes in the top of his safety helmet because the weather is hot. Is this:

A: acceptable if the holes are small
B: his choice
C: acceptable
D: in breach of legal requirements

Which of the following would NOT make a load easier to handle manually

A: Painting it a bright colour
B: Securing the load so it does not shift unexpectedly
C: Reducing its weight
D: Providing suitable handles or hand grips

Which of the following statements is true with regard to the dangers of electricity?

A: Electricity is perfectly safe so long as you wear cotton gloves
B:Electricity is only dangerous if you are not wearing wellington boots
C: Electricity is only dangerous in wet weather
D Electricity is dangerous at any time because you cannot tell by looking at a cable whether it is live

Assuming that the people who weren't able to answer these questions correctly have already been weeded out by the operation of natural selection, I found myself asking the eternal question; "what's the point?" The answer, I imagine, is so someone, somewhere can say that there's a process in place and tick the health and safety box. Job done.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

I am the egg man

When it's tea time and your toddler refuses any form of nourishment on offer, only a new breed of superhero can save the day. Holy albumen, it's Eggy Man! Thank you Eggy Man, with your super powers of novelty and distraction, you've saved tea time!

Sadly, Eggy Man is useless when it comes to defeating super villains armed with kryptonite, penguin costumes and the like, but fortunately we don't get much of that sort of thing here in Newport Pagnell.

Monday, 17 August 2009


Here are three passages from Alan Sokal which say some important things about politics, evidence, decision-making and clear thinking. I'm indebted to the Salty Current blog for reproducing them and to Butterflies and Wheels for drawing them to my attention.

Here Sokal defines his terms:

I stress that my use of the term “science" is not limited to the natural sciences, but includes investigations aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of factual matters relating to any aspect of the world by using rational empirical methods analogous to those employed in the natural sciences. (Please note the limitation to questions of fact. I intentionally exclude from my purview questions of ethics, aesthetics, ultimate purpose, and so forth.) Thus, “science" (as I use the term) is routinely practiced not only by physicists, chemists and biologists, but also by historians, detectives, plumbers and indeed all human beings in (some aspects of) our daily lives. (Of course, the fact that we all practice science from time to time does not mean that we all practice it equally well, or that we practice it equally well in all areas of our lives.)

Here he is on the conflict between a broadly scientific approach to truth and some other approaches which have been tried from time to time - with apologies to the late Stephen Jay Gould, I agree with Sokal that the magisteria of science and religion do overlap to a significant extent:

The affirmative side of science, consisting of its well-verified claims about the physical and biological world, may be what first springs to mind when people think about “science"; but it is the critical and skeptical side of science that is the most profound, and the most intellectually subversive. The scientific worldview inevitably comes into conflict with all non-scientific modes of thought that make purportedly factual claims about the world. And how could it be otherwise?

And here he is on the political implications of the scientific worldview:

The critical thrust of science even extends beyond the factual realm, to ethics and politics. Of course, as a logical matter one cannot derive an “ought" from an “is". But historically - starting in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe and then spreading gradually to more or less the entire world - scientific skepticism has played the role of an intellectual acid, slowly dissolving the irrational beliefs that legitimated the established social order and its supposed authorities, be they the priesthood, the monarchy, the aristocracy, or allegedly superior races and social classes.

Now that's a credo I could happily subscribe to - or, to borrow some more inappropriately religious language:

And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

John 8:32