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...