Sunday, 31 May 2009

Bittersweet symphony

Another advance in the "wellness" industry's campaign to medicalise the normal range of human emotions:

Bitter behavior is so common and deeply destructive that some psychiatrists are urging it be identified as a mental illness under the name post-traumatic embitterment disorder.

According to the article in the Los Angeles Times:

Embittered people are typically good people who have worked hard at something important, such as a job, relationship or activity, Linden says. When something unexpectedly awful happens -- they don't get the promotion, their spouse files for divorce or they fail to make the Olympic team -- a profound sense of injustice overtakes them. Instead of dealing with the loss with the help of family and friends, they cannot let go of the feeling of being victimized. Almost immediately after the traumatic event, they become angry, pessimistic, aggressive, hopeless haters.

"Embitterment is a violation of basic beliefs," Linden says. "It causes a very severe emotional reaction. . . . We are always coping with negative life events. It's the reaction that varies."

There are only a handful of studies on the condition, but psychiatrists at the meeting agreed that much more research is needed on identifying and helping these people. One estimate is that 1% to 2% of the population is embittered, says Linden, who has published several studies on the condition.

"These people usually don't come to treatment because 'the world has to change, not me,' " Linden says. "They are almost treatment resistant. . . . Revenge is not a treatment."

Bitterness isn't a particularly pleasant or productive state of mind, but I don't think it's a mental illness either. It's just a less pleasant side of normal. Under some circumstances it is the world which should to change, not people who quite reasonably hacked off with the state it's in.

The people who are most effective in changing the world do transcend or overcome bitterness, but they don't lose sight of the fact that things need to change. And a very good thing too - we need the awkward sods who refuse to see unfairness and injustice as normal and refuse to accept that they are abnormal for refusing to turn a blind eye and go along with the herd. That's what people can do when at their best, but for most ordinary people, most of the time, being treated badly leads to resentment - it ain't big, it ain't pretty, but it ain't a mental illness either. As they say, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you...

If I was looking for a way out of bitterness, I think I'd turn to a philosopher rather than a Californian shrink with a new syndrome to sell. I rather like the Japanese proverb which goes:

If you sit by the river long enough, you will see the body of your enemy float by.

I'm not entirely sure what it means, but my interpretation is that you're more likely to win life's battles if you can step back and attain a sense of proportion and inner calm rather than hating the person who's done you wrong which will hurt you more than it hurts your enemy.

Easier said than done, but a state of mind worth striving for and, when attained, a hell of a lot cheaper than therapy.

Vote Match

I'll be voting in the Euro Elections, so I had a quick look at Vote Match, an interesting site which matches your voting preferences with what the various party manifestos say. I'm unsurprised at a high policy match with the Lib Dems, slightly dismayed to see that the UKIP popping up with more than a token match, but of course it's just a rough match, based on a few questions.

There are a few issues where I've put myself down as undecided. This isn't always because I haven't made up my mind, but sometimes because the answer is more complicated than a simple "yes" or "no". For example on European Union Membership for Turkey, my actual position is a conditional "yes" - I've no time at all for the Festung Europa xenophobes who want to keep Turkey out for religious or ethnic reasons, but I'd want to see Turkey cleaning up its human rights record before being let in. An interesting site for anybody who wants to cast an informed vote. Stumbled on via Nosemonkey's Eutopia.

Saturday, 30 May 2009


Some politicians just can't help themselves. Take James Purnell, for example. He can help himself to taxpayer's money, obviously, but when it comes to simply not saying something calculated to pointlessly enrage even the most mild-mannered voter, he just can't keep his trap shut:

Britain's leaders should "bite the bullet" and endorse state funding of political parties as part of an overhaul to remove "big money" from the system, the work and pensions secretary, James Purnell, declares today.

In the middle of a recession, when people are losing their jobs and homes, when we are up to our eyes in debt, when daily revelations about MP's expenses are making people believe that all of our elected representatives are on the fiddle, he wants taxpayers to stump up to pay for political parties' expenses. Incredible.

Two observations:

1. How about parties just spending less? As a member of the governing party (for the moment), wouldn't Purnell be better occupied lobbying the movers and shakers to lower the allowed level of political donations to all parties? If a party really has popular support then it will attract enough members to fund itself through membership dues and donations. Get rid of the big donors by all means - the rich and powerful buying influence is just another, more subtle, form of corruption - but don't expect the taxpayer to hand over the money you can't convince ordinary people to hand over voluntarily.

2. These are austere times. Luckily, thanks to the Internet, it has never been easier or cheaper to get your message out. Blogs, YouTube, texts, podcasts, whatever. Generally, when politicians attempt to get their message across by text, YouTube or some similar medium , the results are gimmicky, shallow and dire. But, hey, that's not our problem. The tools are there for you to use, the cost of getting your message across is low, especially for any party popular enough to have a healthy membership and coherent enough to have a clear message to get across. So just get on with it and stop hassling taxpayers for more money.

Maybe it's time for Mr Purnell to bite the bullet and accept that funding party machines isn't a spending priority for anybody outside those party machines. At least with his jaws clamped around a piece of lead, we wouldn't have to listen to his more annoyingly stupid pronouncements.

Crumbs of comfort

This MP's expenses thing which has dominated the headlines for weeks is probably the second worst thing happening to the country at the moment. It's sleazy, it's wrong and it's our money they're treating themselves to. But it's still* not as bad as as what's now yesterday's story of greed and lax supervision - the credit crunch and subsequent recession robbed the economy of billions, not just the tens of thousands claimed by even the most venal members.

The consequences of unrestrained speculation and amassing piles of debt in the process has destroyed sound businesses, jobs and livelihoods, and will continue to do so. MPs caught with their hand in the till should be ashamed, but their actions haven't hurt millions of ordinary people in the way that the financial services industry managed to do, aided by the light touch of politicians. If we'd had some politicians savvy enough to see financial melt-down coming and take timely action to stop or alleviate the madness, I wouldn't have begrudged them the odd wide-screen telly, new kitchen or even a duck island or two. But claiming to have abolished boom and bust in the middle of a classic speculative bubble - now that's unforgivable.

Recession aside, here are a few other things which are even worse than having greedy politicians who have disgraced themselves and so will get a kicking if they try to stand for election again:

1. Authoritarian rule. Corrupt elected politicians are bad, but how about corrupt, unelected politicians and officials? In a country where whistle blowers get beaten up? A report into press freedom in China has found that journalists seeking to expose corporate corruption are targets of intimidation and violence. Or perhaps you'd prefer to see a junta step in to "clean up" the country - remember General Pinochet? In 2005 a US Senate investigation of terrorist financing discovered that Pinochet had opened and closed at least 128 bank accounts at Riggs Bank and other US financial institutions in an apparent money-laundering operation. It seems that Pinochet had illegally obtained a $28m fortune during his period as a dictator of Chile. That's the great thing about being a dictator - you can just take stuff without pesky journalists kicking up a fuss, at least whilst you're still alive. Second homes? General Franco's family helped themselves to palaces, and got away with it, at least until the inconvenient advent of democracy and a free press.

2. A theocracy. There's a wooly-minded idea about that all politicians are corrupt and compromised but clerics are above that sort of thing. Some politicians involved in the expenses scandal have tried to excuse themselves with unconvincing bluster, but at least the party leaders have the grace to express some contrition. The Catholic Church has had a bit of bother lately, too - a little matter of the systematic humiliation, abuse and rape of children. Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, who recently retired as Archbishop of Westminster didn't seem to grasp the seriousness of the situation - O'Connor's "contribution" to the national debate about faith, society and whatever is neatly dissected by Oliver Kamm:

"The outgoing Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, made a contribution at the end of Archbishop Vincent Nichols' installation that was at once touching, funny, serious and extreme. He said, rather controversially perhaps, that a lack of faith is 'the greatest of evils.' He blamed atheism for war and destruction, and implied it was a greater evil even than sin itself."

Extreme is the word.

I don't believe in God; but I've never raped children. If my lack of faith is the greatest of evils, what words do you have left, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, to describe the priest who gained sexual gratification from attacking altar boys, who raped a boy in a wheelchair, and whom you allowed to work as a chaplain though you knew of his proclivities?

Quite. That's just a foretaste of how out of touch clerics are. It's when clerics get their hands on real power in a country that the real fun begins:

The Mutaween in Saudi Arabia are tasked with enforcing Sharia as defined by the government, specifically by the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV). The Mutaween of the CPVPV consists of "more than 3,500 officers in addition to thousands of volunteers...often accompanied by a police escort." They have the power to arrest unrelated males and females caught socializing, anyone engaged in homosexual behavior or prostitution; to enforce Islamic dress-codes, and store closures during the prayer time. They enforce Muslim dietary laws, prohibit the consumption or sale of alcoholic beverages and pork, and seize banned consumer products and media regarded as un-Islamic (such as CDs/DVDs of various Western musical groups, television shows and film). Additionally, they actively prevent the practice or proselytizing of other religions within Saudi Arabia, where they are banned.

Among the things the Mutaween have been criticized or ridiculed for include, use of flogging to punish violators, banning Valentines Day gifts, arresting priests for saying Mass, and being staffed by "ex-convicts whose only job qualification was that they had memorized the Quran in order to reduce their sentences."

Perhaps the most serious and widely criticized incident attributed to them occurred on March 11, 2002, when they prevented schoolgirls from escaping a burning school in Mecca, because the girls were not wearing headscarves and abayas (black robes), and not accompanied by a male guardian. Fifteen girls died and 50 were injured as a result. Widespread public criticism followed, both internationally and within Saudi Arabia.

In August 2008, a young Saudi woman who had converted to Christianity was burned to death after having her tongue cut out by her own father, a member of the Committee

Frankly, I'd rather put up with some New Labour clone claiming for a non-existent mortgage or a Tory grandee charging us to clear his moat out than see a bunch of religious lunatics anywhere near the levers of power.

3. Oligarchy. At least you can eventually kick an MP out without fear of retribution. Unless you live on Sark, that is, where the business interests of the Barclay Brothers accounted for a huge slice of the local economy. They stood for election, were soundly defeated, and promptly scuttled off back to their private island, closing down all their operations on Sark out of sheer spite.

Gordon Dawes, the Barclays’ lawyer, said.

“They have devoted a lot of time, energy, effort and money to Sark, for not only no thanks but positive insult and rebuff. Nobody in their right mind would carry on spending money on such a community.”

In other words "vote for us, or else" - perhaps the Telegraph could have done some in-depth investigations into the corrosive influence of economic blackmail on the voting process in Sark ... oh, hang on, the Barclay Brothers own the Telegraph, don't they?

Lots of people are rightly hacked off with the tired, tarnished political class and intend to express their disgust in the forthcoming Euro elections. We need a better alternative, but some of the alternatives on offer are even worse than what we've got. The authoritarian fascists of the British National Party aren't just morally repugnant - judging from the record of authoritarian bully-boys in power, they'd be vastly more corrupt. Despite attempts at an image make-over, the BNP aren't a new, squeaky-clean breed of fascists - they are conviction politicians - that's "conviction" in the sense of "criminal conviction."

How about the UKIP "alternative"?

The recent history of Ukip raises serious questions about its competence, to put it mildly. The fiasco of Robert Kilroy-Silk's involvement with the party was just one of many bouts of vicious infighting. It has sought to make capital out of the expenses scandal, but is itself no stranger to financial controversy. One of its MEPs, Ashley Mote, was expelled from the party and later jailed for benefit fraud. (He hopes to appeal the verdict.) Another MEP, Tom Wise, is facing prosecution for alleged false accounting and money laundering relating to his EU expenses. He denies the charges. Meanwhile, one of its most distinguished former supporters, the economist Tim Congdon, has left Ukip, claiming that it has been "captured by the European institutions" and neglects its British Eurosceptic supporters. More worryingly, as this newspaper reported last weekend, it has "become a haven for elements of the far Right". In David Cameron's phrase, it attracts "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists".

Not much better, then.

As for the newly formed Christian Party, the record of "faith groups" in power is so poor as to make our current crop of politicians look like saints. I wouldn't vote for them even if they do claim to be able to stop the BNP - which they can't.

At least nobody's yet punting a dodgy oligarch in the Berlusconi mould in these elections.

As Winston Churchill put it, "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried."


Thursday, 21 May 2009

Give me a child....

The Catholic Church's past record on child abuse is so bad that new revelations, although sickening, aren't surprising. Unapologetic child abuse by the BBC, now that is shocking. How low we have sunk...

Friday, 8 May 2009

Doomed! We're all doomed!

This is really spot-on - almost the platonic ideal of every "this is the Government's worst week ever (since the last one)" story you've ever read...

Gordon Brown’s latest desperate bid to be anything other than a pitiful failure has ended in pitiful failure after the Brigade of Gurkhas slammed him for refusing to talk about Joanna Lumley....

The government was in crisis last night as an avalanche of criticism threatened to knock the Earth off its axis.

David Miliband was seen weeping in a Bermondsey gutter, while Alistair Darling was taken into police custody after smashing a near-empty whiskey bottle into Fern Britton’s face during a daytime television interview, screaming “It’s all gone to hell! Why don’t you just leave us alone, you bastards?” Reports of a suicide pact between Jacqui Smith and Ed Balls are unconfirmed.

Read all about it here....

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Attack of the see-through Fokkers

Red Wings in the Sunset is a fascinating essay by the late Stephen Jay Gould. It's about the American artist and naturalist Abbott H. Thayer and his theory of protective colouration in animals. Thayer was one of the first people to systematically examine how camouflage is used by animals (either by tasty ones, to avoid being seen and becoming lunch for something else, or by the hungry predators to avoid being spotted sneaking up on the tasty ones).

The obvious way for animals to be inconspicuous is simply to match the usual background colour of the place where they live - a sandy colour is good for hiding desert-dwelling creatures, being white helps to hide polar bears creeping up on seals and so on. Thayer also noticed that there were two other, more subtle, things going on with animal camouflage:

1) Countershading. As a painter, Thayer knew all about representing three dimensional objects on a flat surface. One of the painter's tricks is to use highlights and shading to reproduce the effects of light and shadow on solid objects in a picture. Generally, light comes from above and falls on the top of a solid body whilst the underside of the object is in shadow - a skillful representational artist can reproduce highlights and shade to create the illusion that you're looking at a solid object, rather than an area of pigment on a flat surface.

Thayer looked at animal colouration and realised that evolution had given animals colur schemes which reversed the optical illusion used by artists to create the illusion of solidity. The artist tries to make a flat painting appear solid by introducing highlights, mainly on top, and shadows, mainly below, where the observer would expect to see them in a solid object. Many animals have dark colouration on top, where the observer would expect to see bright highlights and are lighter underneath, where the observer would expect to see dark shadows. The effect is to fool the eye of another creature, whether predator or prey, making the countershaded animal seem to blend into the general background of a scene, rather than standing our as a solid object with highlights and shade. This type of protective colouration is called countershading (countershading is also sometimes known as Thayer's Law).

The pale bellies of these countershaded ibex make them appear flat and inconspicuous, especially compared with the jumble of rocks casting shadows all around. The shark in this picture is also countershaded, with a dark back, paler flanks and a pale underside. The shark also demonstrates how, especially among fish and birds, colouration can simultaneously achieve countershading, by counteracting shadows and making the animal's profile appear flat and match the animal's background. When viewed from above, the shark is as dark as the dark waters below it; from below it is very pale, to reduce the contrast with the brighter, sunlit waters above it.

2) Patterns to break up the animal's shape - spots, stripes, irregular blotches of contrasting colour. Tiger stripes, leopard spots, mackerel stripes all confuse the edge detection algorithms the brain uses in vision processing, breaking up a the appearance of continuous object and creating "false edges". The coat of the ocelot is a good example as it the skin of the common european adder. Thayer called these markings "ruptive" - nowadays the phrase is "disruptive" patterns.

Stephen Jay Gould's essay is interesting in both giving Thayer full credit for his observational skills in identifying how animals used camouflage, but also giving the story of how Thayer, having had a brilliant insight, took his theories too far. Having shown how animals could use colouration to hide, Thayer then went off on a wild goose chase by trying to demonstrate that all animal colouration was there to disguise the creature. Even the bright, showy tail of the male peacock, Thayer imagined, might serve to disguise the creature when standing in the dappled sunlight of an Indian jungle, whilst, bizarrely, he thought that the pink colouration of flamingos served to hide them from crepuscular predators, helping them to blend in with a pink sunset. Later naturalists would demonstrate that not all colours are intended to disguise - the peacock's tail looks showy because it is intended for show, to impress a mate, not to hide in a dappled forest clearing. And a flamingo seen in front of a pink sunset does not blend in - it appears, like any other solid object viewed with the light coming from behind it as a dark silhouette. The first picture I could find of flamingos at sunset is a bit cheesy, but illustrates the point.

Humans have adopted some of these techniques, as an aid to hunting other animals and, in the case of military camouflage, to refine our worryingly large repertoire of techniques for killing other humans. Thayer himself was aware of the military potential of his discoveries, patenting a countershaded colour scheme for warships in 1902. In time, the principles outlined by Thayer were adopted for military purposes. This Grumman Avenger (the type of plane flown, incidentally, by the first President George Bush during the Second World War), is painted in a shark-like countershaded scheme - dark on top, lighter sides and pale on the bottom. Here's a CF-116 jet (a Canadian-built Northrop F-5), displaying a disruptive pattern of wavy stripes.

There is another animal camouflage technique which Thayer didn't examine. It's pretty specialised, and doesn't generally apply to big animals, but it's an alternative to countershading or disruptive patterns. It's called being transparent. Here are some see-through animals (ignore the transparent zebrafish which was bred artificially, and the transparent-head fish, where the transparency is to do with how the animal sees, not how it hides). Now humans have copied countershading and disruptive patterns for their own nefarious purposes, but becoming transparent? Nah, that wouldn't work...

Well, actually, even this has been tried. In First World War, when aeroplanes were generally constructed of doped canvas stretched over a wood (or wood and metal) framework, some bright spark in Germany hit on the idea of making German warplanes invisible, or at least a lot harder to spot. The plan was to cover them, not with canvas, but with cellon, a cellophane-like transparent material. And here is the result - a see-through Fokker Eindecker, coated in cellon.

Via an interesting post by Ian Dunn on the QI Talk Forum I found out a little more about the curious history of see through aeroplanes. Apparently the Germans would have like d to use cellon to render much larger planes than the Fokker Eindecker as near to invisible as they could manage - the idea was to make their giant Riesenflugzeug or R-plane bombers inconspicuous by the magic of cellon.

The scheme eventually came to nothing, because cellon proved to have some major drawbacks for an aircraft covering:

a) It was highly inflammable
b) In dry conditions it shrank and warped the aircraft's structure, when it was damp, the cellon expanded and sagged.
c) Exposure to ultraviolet light in sunlight caused cellon to become yellow and brittle.
d) Cellon was shiny as well as transparent - reflected light actually made the cellon-covered aircraft easier to spot, not harder.

In the end the project failed, so becoming see-through is one animal camouflage technique that the human race never successfully adopted ... so far....

Telepathic blogging

Post in haste and repent at leisure – I dashed off my last blog post in a hurry and although I had a (not particularly insightful) point in mind about the link between civil unrest and Gordon Brown’s claim to have “put an end to the damaging cycle of boom and bust”, the point remained in my head without being spelled out in words, which puts you at a disadvantage, unless you happen to be a mind-reader. .

The civil unrest wasn’t seen much in the UK (unless you count the outbreaks of morris dancing). The UK news outlets and blogs are full of is news and speculation about the terrible mess Gordon Brown’s government is in (“worst week ever” and so on). My point was in two parts:

1) It’s not just Gordon Brown’s recession – many governments around the world that were unfortunate enough to have the global financial crisis happen on their watch are becoming just as unpopular.

2) Where Gordon Brown is particularly at fault is in having claimed credit for the “good” (unsustainable bubble) years. – “we set about establishing a new economic framework to secure long-term economic stability and put an end to the damaging cycle of boom and bust”. I think he’s far more at fault for having complacently made that inflated claim then he was for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, (which is where any serving government finds itself when the global economy goes so spectacularly wrong). I’m sure he wasn’t the only leader to take credit for the good times, or who failed to question the sustainability of what was going on in the world of high finance – but claiming the credit in such a sound-bite sized nugget turned out to be a spectacular fail.

Friday, 1 May 2009


Labour unions in dozens of countries around the world are using traditional May Day marches to protest over the handling of the global economic crisis.

In central Istanbul, Turkish police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse several hundred demonstrators.

Overnight, German youths clashed with police in the capital Berlin.

Some 300 rallies are planned across France, which has already seen strikes from university academics, hospital staff and fishermen among others.

Marches have been held in several Asian nations, including Cambodia, Japan and the Philippines.

Yes, after the years of hubris, nemesis is on the march. Even more disturbing than the civil unrest there are also rumours that outbreaks of morris dancing may occur. Happy May Day to one and all!