Friday, 26 February 2010

Talkin' 'bout Y generation

It's just occurred to me that I'm a member of Generation Y. No, not that Generation Y - I'm far too old for that. No, the Y-fronts Generation - males who grew up wearing Y-fronts (AKA "jockey shorts", "jockeys" or "briefs"elsewhere in the English-speaking world).

As a kid I was, unknowingly, the beneficiary of two great complimentary advances in male comfort break technology - the Y-front underwear closure and the zip trouser fly

The zip (zipper, zip fastener) had been evolving for a long time before it was used to close trouser flies. In 1851, Elias Howe (better known as one of the pioneers of the sewing machine) devised a clothing closure operated by locking a series of clasps together. Unlike a modern zip fastener, the clasps were pulled together not by a slider but by a string and the device, although ingenious, didn't work very well.

A device incorporating a slider was developed by Whitcomb L. Judson in the 1890's. This looked more like a modern zip fastener, but the design wasn't perfected and made reliable until 1914, when Gideon Sundback came up with his "Hookless Fastener No. 2" which improved on earlier designs by adding a dimple to the bottom of each zip tooth and a nib to the top. This design, which ensured that the zip teeth stayed firmly together, was the zip as w know it today. First used on boots and tobacco pouches, it took another twenty years for zips to be regularly incorporated into clothing. In the conservative world of men's tailoring, the zip fly first began to challenge the button fly in the late '30's going on to supplant buttons over the following decade or so.

In 1935, just as the trouser zip was beginning to appear, Arthur Kneibler in Chicago was rolling out the first "Jockey briefs". Mr Kneibler boasted the enviable job title of "apparel engineer" for a company called Coopers. Where the rise of the zip fly was slow and steady, Kniebler's Jockey briefs were an immediate hit - despite being launched in the long-john weather of a cold Chicago January, 30,000 flew off the shelves of the Marshall Field & Co department store in the first three months. Coopers was eventually re-named Jockey International after the company's most famous product.

By 1938, Y-fronts had reached Britain, with Simpson's of Piccadilly shifting 3,000 pairs a week. In the 1948 London Olympic Games, every male member of the British Olympic squad was given a free pair of Y-fronts. In subsequent years, Y-fronts supplanted long johns (aided, no doubt, by the rise of central heating) and saw off the challenge of boxer shorts (invented in the 1920s) to become the default undergarments for most males.

I grew up with Y-fronts and zip flies and I didn't realise just how convenient this combination was until, in later life, I experimented with the alternatives. The button fly has made occasional, self-consciously retro, comebacks, most famously in the shape Levi's "501" jeans (I'm way too far from being fashion-forward to have ever owned a pair myself), but they're not as efficient:

Have you ever wonder about the logic behind a pair of pants that takes an extra 10 seconds to unbutton, an extra 15 seconds to button? Many can even argue that buttons close the fly less completely and less efficiently than a zipper. So why do some many of the premium brands only offer button fly jeans?
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld let the world know that he only wears button fly. During an episode of his hit TV show Jerry stated: "That is one place on my wardrobe I do not need interlocking metal teeth. It's like a mink trap down there."

As for Seinfeld's "mink trap" gag, well, I've used zip flies for forty-odd years. Even during those irresponsible years of young adulthood when I'd occasionally drink myself into near-oblivion, I've never experienced one of those zip-related accidents of which male nightmares are made, or known anybody else who has (although I suppose it wouldn't necessarily be an experience you'd want to share with the world), so I've concluded that zips are quicker, more convenient and mostly harmless.

As for the alternatives to Y-fronts, the 1980's seemed to be the time when Y-fronts started to lose street cred. Fashion doesn't exactly play an important part in my life - actually knowing who Gok Wan is probably represents about the most trend-aware piece of information in my head right now. But even I'm not immune to marketing and to what appears on the shelves, and back in the '80s I got the message that Y-fronts were a bit sad and were the sort of garments worn by men whose clothing was still bought by their mums. Accordingly, I moved to boxers. They seemed a bit cooler in summer (although you didn't get the benefit if you were wearing something relatively tight, like jeans). Indeed, the loose fit of boxers was part of their appeal. There were dark rumours that tighter garments like Y-fronts were making men less fertile by keeping their sperm too hot (rumours not supported by the latest evidence, by the way).

Fashion victims like me having forsaken the Y-front for the boxer, soon began to appreciate the cost of eagerly pursuing all the latest fads and trends. Riding a bike in boxers can be a distinctly uncomfortable experience, especially on rough roads. There are some parts of a bloke's anatomy that don't benefit from being crushed and battered between the weight of his body and an unyielding bicycle saddle. I've only ever ridden a horse in tight underwear (no, I was wearing the underwear, not the horse - keep up), but I imagine that horse riding in boxers must be even more painful.

Boxers also had social drawbacks. Many boxers lacked even a button closure at the front of the fly, gaping open at the slightest provocation; even boxers with buttons could ride up in a revealing fashion or be left open by the absent-minded. When crashing for the night on a friend's floor, a guest sleeping over in boxers rather than Y-fronts was in constant danger of "unintentional and embarrassing disarray", as the early promoters of the zip fly coyly put it. The Y-front closure, in contrast, keeps things in place, yet accessible, at all times.

This is why, even after switching to boxers, I've always had the odd pair of fashion-backward but reliable and practical Y-fronts at the back of my drawer.

If the eighties were bad for Y-fronts, the Britain of the nineties was even worse, as the cartoonist Steve Bell mercilessly mocked John Major as a useless superhero, wearing his Y-fronts over his trousers. Not a look to emulate, although one that clearly did it for Edwina Currie.

There are other alternatives to the boxer, for example the very, very skimpy type of skin-tight posing-pouch-type briefs without any flies favoured by body-building types. I've never felt comfortable with these, as I don't have the body for them and the up-and-over style of urination they dictate just feels wrong. Mostly, these days, I use the sort of trunks that have the same leg-length and waistband height as boxers, but are tighter, usually with a button fly. They don't suffer from the same lack of support as boxers and are (I'm assured) more flattering than Y-fronts. What they lack, though is the convenience of the Y-front fly - a closure that stays closed when you want it to, but still allows easy access without any button-related fumbling at the urinal. Combined with the zip fly, the Y-front closure is still, IMHO, an overlooked design classic.

The last time I was in M and S, stocking up on undies, I couldn't help noticing that the Y-fronts were confined to a few small and insignificant rails in a display dominated by button-fronted trunks. Perhaps the bottom really has fallen out of the market and the age of the Y-front is drawing to a close.

A bloke from Debenhams recently quoted sales figures suggesting that Y-fronts are making a come-back in these recessionary times - he speculated that Y-fronts "provide a much greater sense of security than loose-fitting boxers, and perhaps, in these troubled times, that's what men need to feel." Don't you just love spokespeople doing pop psychology, or, as I prefer to think of it, just making up any old tosh that might fit the facts? Maybe he's right - more bizarre fashions have come back from the grave - but I'll take more convincing that this isn't just a blip in a long story of decline. My only hope for the future is that somebody has come up with, or will come up with, a closure for trunk-style underpants as elegant and efficient as the Y-front closure. I've never previously spent much time thinking about the design of underpants, but next time I go shopping for some, I'll be on the look out to see whether anybody has efficiently closed this gap in the market and produced a male undergarment fit for the 21st Century.

Terry Kirby's fine article "The undercover story: A briefs history of Y fronts" in The Independent was the source for much of the Y-front related trivia above.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

How are the mighty fallen

Yesterday, it was announced that GM's last-ditch effort to sell its Hummer brand to a Chinese company had fallen through. The once mighty king of the gorilla-sized-car market—28,000 of them sold in 2007, versus just 9,000 in 2009—could not fetch even a paltry $150 million. Having failed to find a buyer, GM is now moving ahead with plans to liquidate the brand entirely.

Christopher Bateman writes in his Vanity Fair obituary for the "slow, unwieldy behemoth".

In his Bark Bark Woof Woof blog, Mustang Bobby's farewell to the Hummer is more succinct, laconic and straight to the point; "That's okay, guys; there's always Viagra".

Well done, that man.

I'm guessing that a Hummer plus Viagra would look something like this:

Mmm, classy....

Photo courtesy of avlxyz on Flickr

Song of the day

I enjoyed this Pete Seeger recording, posted on The Daily (Maybe) blog today. I wonder If somebody else was listening to the Royal Bank of Scotland Chief exec. on the radio this morning? Well, we own a fair chunk of those marble banks now, but somehow things haven't changed all that much.

How's the weather on your planet?

The state-supported Royal Bank of Scotland, which made a loss of £24.3 billion loss last year (the most enormous loss ever made by any British company), has made a loss of £3.6 billion this year.

For the record, a £3.6 billion loss (in a year when markets have risen strongly) still isn't small change. Compare and contrast - last year, Tesco made a record profit of around £3 billion. Just give that a moment to sink in; £3 billion represents the largest annual profit ever made by a company that's a household name, the biggest supermarket chain in this country, a retail behemoth with 30% market share, over 2,000 stores across the country, a company so huge and powerful that there's a campaign group "Tescopoly" specifically set up to protest against Tesco's alleged abuse of its dominant market position.

As a reward for losing £3.6 billion, RBS will be awarding its highly-paid investment bankers £1.3 billion in bonuses. On the Radio 4 Today programme this morning, RBS Chief Executive Officer Stephen Hester defended the pay-out:

We have tried to tread a very careful line between paying the minimum that we could possibly get away with, as I've said many times, but also creating a situation where the people of RBS do not feel unfairly discriminated against...

Fortunately, I'd already finished my breakfast when he said that, or I'd have choked on it. Yes, I did hear him right - Stephen Hester thinks that not giving investment bankers working a for a failed company which is 84% owned by the state and is supported by massive guarantees from taxpayers, a £1.3 billion package of bonuses in a year when that bank is, by any reasonable standards, making a huge loss, would be unfair discrimination. He really said it

Major reality check, Mr Hester. If you're unsure what "unfair discrimination" looks like, do a bit of research. Google it. Examine the lives of a few people who've suffered genuine unfair discrimination or who have fought against it, often at great personal cost. Check out Nelson Mandela, Emmeline Pankhurst, Rosa Parks, Alan Turing, Mary Wollstonecraft and Peter Tatchell for starters. Then tell me whether RBS investment bankers belong on that list. I'll give you a clue. They don't.

You are talking about well-paid individuals, working for a failed business. If they'd had the misfortune to be working for any other sort of company that had gone bust through mismanagement, they wouldn't be counting the size of their bonuses, they'd be out of a job. They are remarkably lucky, privileged people to still be in work, supported by the taxpayer, during a massive economic downturn, largely caused by the corporate greed and irresponsibility of their own organisation and ones like it.

And they say MPs are out of touch.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Bloggers on bullying

Nobody involved in the "Bullygate" affair has come out of it looking good, but looking through my blogroll, I can see that it's inspired some of the best commentary I've read in a while:

All the talk of bullying vindicates a central insight of Marxism - that people have developed mechanisms, maybe inadvertently, which prevent them from seeing the reality of inequality....

What makes a bully? Opportunity, that’s what. The overwhelming majority of cases of bullying arise from inequalities of power. It is bosses who bully underlings - rarely vice versa.

Writes Chris Dillow

Probably the most fascinating side detail, at least to me, about the extracts from Andrew Rawnsley's book serialised in yesterday's Observer, is that this is the work of a man who can be described as more than sympathetic towards the Labour party, including Gordon Brown himself.

Notes Scepticisle, going on to add:

Amid all this, there was also a prime minister portrayed who still appears admirable: a passionate, deeply committed individual who has despite the depths to which he has sunk during the last three years still gotten crucial decisions right, such as the bailing out of the banks ... and who is by no means an irredeemable, let alone terrible holder of the ultimate office of state. This makes the response from Downing Street to the revelations all the more risible, if not actively counter-productive: to deny almost everything and also to rubbish Rawnsley himself....

David Cameron would have likely made hay with it on Wednesday, and compared Brown's character with his own, despite his acting as the bag man of an apparently far worse bully while working in PR for Carlton, but the story would have soon lost its lustre. Instead we've had Labour plumbing its usual depths, with claims of Tory plotting, as if Rawnsley was somehow part of a conspiracy dedicated to further damaging Gordon Brown, as well as hysterical claims from the likes of John Prescott that it's all lies.

As far as the Flying Rodent's concerned, there are more important things to worry about:

Me, I'm looking forward to the YouTube clips of the PM freaking out and throwing desks around his office, roaring and bellowing like a pissed-up Tyrannosaurus.

Of course, I'm kidding - this isn't interesting news at all. As far as bullshit political scandals go, this one ranks a good bit below Clinton getting blown, John Major's balls-deep dalliances with Edwina Currie and Barack Obama's secret Allah-worship. I'd say that it's about on a par with David Cameron saying "Twat" to a journalist, which at the time set the standard for tedious, apolitical horseshit in our national discourse.

It'd be interesting if any of our politicians came up with a plan to get two and a half million citizens back into work, or to get some of those doomed megabillions back off the banks. Hell, I'd settle for one of them just quietly admitting that we don't have any sane strategy for victory in Afghanistan, without even so much as proposing the withdrawal of a single soldier.

Meanwhile, in the blue corner, Mr Eugenides is left wondering which part of the word "confidential" the aptly-named Mrs Pratt doesn't understand:

Since when did confidential telephone calls to a charity helpline become material for the public domain? By what possible rationale did Pratt think that she had the right to disseminate the identities of her service users' employer on national TV? Unless there is something we don't know - and, of course, there may be - this is just a shocking breach of ethics. What was this woman thinking?

I am pretty sure I don't have to spell out for even casual readers my loathing of Gordon Brown, and my settled belief that he is unfit for the great office he holds. He will be gone by summer anyway, but in any other walk of life he would already have been suspended and under investigation. Christine Pratt, for her part, should in any sane world be out of a job by the weekend.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Duck hunting season still open

First, the Telegraph blew the whistle on Members of Parliament wasting taxpayer's money on duck islands. Now MPs are blowing the whistle on the National Health Service wasting taxpayer's money on quacks:

The NHS should stop funding homeopathy, MPs say.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee said using public money on the highly-diluted remedies could not be justified.

The cross-party group said there was no evidence beyond a placebo effect, when a patient gets better because of their belief that the treatment works...

It is thought about £4m a year is spent on homeopathy by the NHS, helping to fund four homeopathic hospitals in London, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow and numerous prescriptions.

Reports the BBC. Robert Wilson, of the British Association of Homeopathic Manufacturers is apparently 'disappointed'. Since every pound of public money squandered on this discredited nonsense is a pound not available for proper, effective treatments, his disappointment gives me immense pleasure and some hope for the future.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

The crossed keys

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Matthew 16:18-19

"There is going to be a lecture, announced in the Times Higher Education supplement, by someone trying to reconcile science and religion in the history of the Royal Society", noted one of my favourite bloggers recently. The lecture, by one Peter Harrison, Andreas Idreos professor of science and religion at the University of Oxford, will rest on a foundation of factoids such as this:

...almost without exception, early modern natural philosophers cherished religious convictions, although these were not invariably orthodox. Some - but by no means all - made the point that they were motivated to pursue scientific inquiry on account of these religious commitments.

P Z Myers remains unimpressed:

It's simply meaningless to declare that people 350 years ago felt that their religion motivated their pursuit of science; it does not support the validity of the religious part. They might as well argue that the people who built Stonehenge 5000 years ago were motivated by their pagan beliefs to study astronomy — the astronomy is cool, but animism is not hallowed by its antiquity.

Read the rest of his post here. Myers limits himself to noting that, far from demonstrating "independent support for the truth of the Christian religion", Harrison's weak argument rests on correlation which, as any fule kno, does not necessarily imply causation.

There's another objection that Myers doesn't raise (at least in this post). Just how devout were educated religious people in those days and why were they so devout? Well, on average, they were probably more devout than most people in modern, secular societies. But why?

If you're looking at this from a history of thought angle, lots of faith-shaking discoveries just weren't known about back then. It's easier to have faith when everyone's brought up to have a pretty good working knowledge of a particular set of sacred texts, but even the most brilliant minds of the age have no idea about important discoveries that contradict or provide alternative explanations for the truths set out in those texts. For example, they didn't known of evidence that:

  • the earth is a tiny speck in the middle of an incomprehensible immensity -the universe of Hubble is vastly bigger than that of Newton and immeasurably bigger than the one described in the Bible - the Bible just says "in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth", like, here are the heavens, here's the earth, about the same sort of size, give or take - no mention of the fact that the heavens are on a hugely, mind-bogglingly bigger scale than everything we know on our minuscule pale blue dot
  • the Earth's age is not the 6,000-odd years implied by counting generations in the Bible, but around 4.5 billion years old
  • life has been around on our planet for about 3.5 billion years, constantly mutating and evolving into new forms, including ourselves, the evidence for supernatural conjuring tricks with clay and ribs remaining elusive
  • the accepted Biblical canon didn't just come down from on high with no precedents or related documents - the discovery of such documents as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library places these sacred texts in the context of a related, developing, changing body of religious writings, evolving over time
  • some stories in the Bible seem to share roots with earlier legends, told in long-vanished pagan societies - for example the story of the Noachian flood is prefigured in the Sumerian / Akkadian epic of Gilgamesh, written by people who worshipped a pantheon of Gods like An (god of the firmament), Enki (earth goddess), Inanna (goddess of sexual love and fertility) and Ninkasi (goddess of beer)

Not knowing about this stuff would tend to make a person a lot less critical of the assertions contained in their holy book.

There was also a far more pressing reason for being more devout, or at least appearing to be so, in past centuries. When religion was a powerful force, it could be very bad for your career, or even your health to disbelieve in the faith endorsed by your rulers. In a Lent post, P Z Myers points out just how unhealthy skepticism can be in a society where the Godly hold power:

On this date [February 17th] in 1600, Giordano Bruno (née Filippo Bruno) was executed for heresy. The Italian philosopher was burned alive at the stake at age 52 for refusing to recant heretical ideas. Born Filippo Bruno in 1548, he entered the Dominican Order at Naples at age 15, adopting the name of Giordano. After being accused of heresy, he fled his Italian convent and traveled throughout Europe (1576 to 1592). During two years in England, Bruno wrote and published six dialogs, including "On the Infinite, the Universe, and Worlds" and "The Ash Wednesday Supper." A Copernican, he rejected Aristotelian dogma and challenged entrenched religious teachings, declaring pantheist views. Some academics today regard him as a path-blazing intellectual, others as a victim of his nonconformity. When Bruno returned to Italy in 1592, he was arrested by the Inquisition. Bruno was imprisoned for seven years in the dungeons of Rome, where he was tortured and isolated before being executed.

This is an extreme example - Galileo, in contrast, merely ended his life under house arrest, but you can see a pattern here. The Church used to be powerful and offending it could be a career-limiting move. This didn't just apply in Italy. In England:

in 1666, the House of Commons introduced a bill against atheism and profaneness. That same year, on 17 October 1666, it was ordered that the committee to which the bill was referred "should be empowered to receive information touching such books as tend to atheism, blasphemy and profaneness... in particular... the book of Mr. Hobbes called the Leviathan". Hobbes was terrified at the prospect of being labelled a heretic, and proceeded to burn some of his compromising papers.

In 1811, an Oxford student anonymously published a treatise on "The Necessity of Atheism". The college authorities found the content so shocking that they expelled the author (one Percy Bysshe Shelley).

In October 1819 the publisher Richard Carlile, was found guilty of blasphemy and seditious libel and was sentenced to three years in prison. His crime was to have published material which offended the church and state - he printed an edition of Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason (a book critical of the Church of England) and wrote an article which criticised the government for its alleged role in the Peterloo Massacre.

Carlile was also fined £1,500 and when he refused to pay, his Fleet Street offices were raided and his stock was confiscated. Carlile was determined not to be silenced. While he was in prison he continued to write material for The Republican, which was now being published by his wife. Due to the publicity created by Carlile's trial, the circulation of The Republican increased dramatically and was now outselling pro-government newspapers such as The Times.

In December 1819 the government took further action by imposing a 4d. tax on cheap newspapers and stipulating that they could not be sold for less than 7d. As most working people were earning less than 10 shillings a week, this severely reduced the number of people who could afford to buy radical newspapers.

The last trial by jury for atheism in Britain took place as late as 1842, when George Jacob Holyoake was sent to prison for six months for daring to advocate atheism in the hearing of a clergyman.

These are just a few examples of the perils of Atheism before the modern era - no wonder most folk were keen to be seen as believers in the dominant creed of their time. Many, undoubtedly, were true believers, but many others probably just knew what was good for them, paying lip service to the prevailing dogma. In more recent times there were many supporters of the Soviet Communist Party, who followed the party line not through any sense of conviction, but to get, or stay in, a good job, or simply to stay out of the gulags. Authoritarian rule always has a few fanatics at the centre, but there are always many more people who just know which side their bread's buttered and are content to be known as Fascists, Falangists, Ba'athists, Communists, whatever, so long as the authorities will advance them, or at least not persecute them.

In the past, religious faith in the West wasn't only a matter of free choice, any more than it is in today's Iran or Saudi Arabia, where it's still a rational policy to appear pious if you want to get on and not get beaten up.

When Christianity became the dominant creed of the Roman Empire, the Petrine text from Matthew, with Jesus giving St Peter the keys to heaven, was quoted as the basis for Papal authority. The crossed keys are still used as a papal symbol. I think the symbolism's quite apt, myself, although not in the way originally intended. For me, they represent the locking away of knowledge and power by a priestly elite. Or the keys used by the jailers of the human spirit to keep people in their place. Whatever way you look at the keys, they are a symbol of power. And not wanting to be crushed by the power of religion is probably one of the reasons why, until very recently, a lot of people in the West made damn sure they were seen to be pious.

We're second class, citizens!

If I was in standard class I would not do work because people would be looking over your shoulder the entire time, there would be noise, there would be distraction.

They are a totally different type of people.

There's lots of children, there's noise, there's activity. I like to have peace and quiet when I'm travelling.

Sir Nicholas Winterton, MP, as reported by the BBC.

Asked whether it mattered that the public might not agree with first-class travel, he said: "I'm sorry, the public are wrong. It's for Parliament to decide not the public."

Sir Nicholas and MP wife Ann Winterton, who is also standing down, faced criticism for claiming rent of £20,000 a year on a flat they transferred to a family trust after paying off the mortgage.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Anorak heaven

All you ever wanted to know about the bulk carrier vessels of the North American Great Lakes can be found at (via).

Thursday, 11 February 2010

News, views and numbers

Here are two pet hates in news reporting that I definitely share:

1. “Will say later today” : If someone is going to say something, wait until they’ve said it. If they haven’t said it yet, cover something that someone has said....

2.”according to a new report” : You know what reports are? They’re somebody writing down what they think about stuff. What someone thinks about stuff isn’t news. It’s just what someone thinks.

Read the rest here. I can add one other pet hate - the incessant use of the word "swingeing"* meaning very harsh or severe. There seems to be an unwritten journalistic rule that all cuts are "swingeing". In over four and a half decades of listening to the gloriously multitudinous assemblage of people who use the English tongue, I've never, ever, heard the word "swingeing" used anywhere except in news reports. Come on, guys, if you really must force the same, unimaginative prefix into every other bit of copy, at least use a word the rest of the world uses.

"Swingeing", though, is just a very minor peeve of mine - the constant use of this stale word is just an annoyance, but the amount of "news" time clogged up with rubbish about what people are about to say and uncritically reported PR filler is a real menace. Especially when the real news is quite incredible enough to make anybody stop and think:

I wonder if the cost of the new "Independent" Parliamentary Standards Authority - a staggering £6.5 million per year - will cause the same level as anger as the duck houses and plasma-screen TVs that led the government to set it up in the first place. Somehow I doubt it. But it should.

£6.5 million represents around £10,000 per MP. As the BBC report points out, it's almost six times the total amount being paid back by assorted troughers. Cutting back on abuses, it seems, will cost far more money than the abuses themselves.

Writes the heresiarch.

To recap (in round figures):

Cost of inflated/inappropriate expenses claims to be paid back by MPs - £1,200,000

Cost of the enquiry into those expenses - £1,100,000

Cost of a standards authority to scrutinise future expenses claims - £6,500,000 per annum

Cost of rescuing failed British banks - £850,000,000,000

Yes, between them, a collection of MPs managed to fiddle just over a million quid out of the taxpayers in dodgy expenses. The enquiry that looked into the affair cost the taxpayer almost as much again. To make sure that the same thing doesn't happen again in future, the taxpayer will have to pony up six and a half million every year. Yet the whole expenses scandal is the merest of small change in comparison with the really big story it pushed off the front pages - the billions pocketed by sections of an ill-regulated financial services industry to save it from itself (and, more importantly, to save the rest of us during what, even with the bail out, has beenthe longest lasting contraction since records began).

These sort of facts, speak loud and clear for themselves, and represent real news and context, as opposed to whatever happens to be today's piece of PR-puff "research" or a press release about what some tedious politician is about to say in a "keynote"** speech that's being eagerly awaited by precisely nobody at all.

*tr.v. swinged, swinge·ing also swing·ing, swing·es ArchaicTo punish with blows; thrash; beat.

[Middle English swengen, to shake, dash, from Old English swengan.]

The Free Dictionary

** "Keynote" - a piece of journalese almost as annoying as "swingeing"

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.

Cadbury is to be taken over by the US food company Kraft after its board approved a new increased bid....

Irene Rosenfeld, the chairman and chief executive of Kraft Foods, said the deal was good news for shareholders and staff....

The company has given no specific assurances over the future of 4,500 UK jobs, though it says it wants to invest in the Bournville site and maintain production at Somerdale, near Bristol, also known as Keynsham.

BBC News, 19 January 2010

Cadbury's new owner, Kraft, says it plans to close the company's Somerdale factory in Keynsham, near Bristol.

BBC News, 9 February 2010

Confectionery brands of the world, unite!

Looks out Mandy, they'll be coming for your perfectly formed creme eggs next....

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Gods of Metal

Nine years ago, during the last census, a grass roots campaign urged the British to list ‘Jedi Knight’ as their religion. Everyone was shocked, and not a few appalled, when 390,000 people signed on. According to census results, there are more Jedis in England than Jews. Jedi-ism is the fourth largest religion in Britain, after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism*.


“We were just having a few pints and talking about the census that’s coming up in 2011,” said Alexander Milas, editor of the UK music magazine Metal Hammer...

Why not make Metal the new Jedi?

Then they set up a Facebook page: ‘Heavy Metal for the 2011 Census’. One week in, they already have 10,000 fans.

Everyone who signs on is being asked to put “Heavy Metal” in the entry under ‘Faith’ in next year’s census.


Thank you, The Star, Toronto, BBC Radio 4's Sunday programme and Metal Hammer. Dudes, you rock!

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Then I hit his face, now I'm a believer

Shortly after having left his local mosque, Shamso Miah went into a bank. He had a row with another man in the bank queue and hit him twice, fracturing his jaw. His case was heard by Cherie Blair or Cherie Booth QC, as she's known when she's doing the judging who generously announced that:

I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a religious person and have not been in trouble before... You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour.

The Heresiarch finds her comments quite surprising.

In other news:

Osama Bin Laden would find himself at the sharp end of a £200 fine if he was tried in a British court, Cherie Blair said last night...

Mrs Blair stressed that until he started organising a systematic campaign of devastating suicide attacks against western targets, Mr Bin Laden had never been in trouble before.

She added: "Recruiting hundreds of disillusioned young men and training them to become mass killers is not acceptable behaviour, but he's a religious man and so obviously he already knows that.
That last quote was from The Daily Mash, may Allah bless it and grant it peace.

It doesn't come as any surprise to me that the woman's two coupons short of a pop-up toaster. Cherie and that husband of hers have form going back years. Mad as a sack of badgers, the pair of them. Here's the magnificent Francis Wheen, with memories of the Blairs in their wacky prime:

Cherie Blair finds her devout Catholicism no impediment to flirtations with New Age spirituality, as she proved by inviting a Feng Shui expert to rearrange the furniture at No 10 and wearing a magic pendant known as the BioElectric Shield, which is filled with "a matrix of specially-cut quartz crystals" that surround the wearer with "a cocoon of energy" and ward off evil forces. Last December, amid the frenzy of media indignation at the discovery that the conman Peter Foster had helped the Blairs buy two flats in Bristol, some of us were far more alarmed by the disclosures about Foster's girlfriend Carole Caplin, who is employed by the prime minister's wife as a 'lifestyle guru'. Through Caplin, Mrs Blair has been introduced to an 86-year-old 'dowsing healer', Jack Temple, who treated Cherie's swollen ankles by swinging a crystal pendulum and giving her strawberry leaves grown within the 'electro-magnetic field' of a neolithic circle he has built in his back garden.

It was long assumed that Tony Blair, who wears his Christianity on his sleeve, did not share his wife's unorthodox enthusiasms. In 1999 he demanded the resignation of the England football coach Glenn Hoddle, who had told an interviewer that disabled people were paying off the bad karma they collected in previous incarnations. Blair thought this "offensive", though it was not discernibly more offensive than the doctrine of original sin held by many of his fellow Christians. Besides, from a Buddhist viewpoint Hoddle was quite correct: no less a figure than the Dalai Lama confirmed as much, but added that "if you live in a Christian country, you should keep these views to yourself. It is difficult to have a mish-mash of religions".

Not so, as Blair confirmed when he and his wife underwent a 'rebirthing experience' under the supervision of one Nancy Aguilar while holidaying on the Mexican Riviera in the summer of 2001. The prime ministerial mudbath was revealed by New Humanist contributor Tom Baldwin in a gobsmacking report for the Times:

"Ms Aguilar told the Blairs to bow and pray to the four winds as Mayan prayers were read out…Within the Temazcal, a type of Ancient Mayan steam bath, herb-infused water was thrown over heated lava rocks, to create a cleansing sweat and balance the Blairs' 'energy flow'."

Ms Aguilar chanted Mayan songs, told the Blairs to imagine that they could see animals in the steam and explained what such visions meant. They were told the Temazcal was like the womb and those participating in the ritual must confront their hopes and fears before 'rebirth' and venturing outside. The Blairs were offered watermelon and papaya, then told to smear what they did not eat over each other's bodies along with mud from the Mayan jungle outside.

The prime minister, on holiday just a month before the 11 September attacks, is understood to have made a wish for world peace.


The website at is available again, so the link mentioned in my last post should now work.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Beware of the Hun in ths sun

Thanks to Meridian for starting to dig down into the reasons why Second World War German flying aces shot down so many more planes than pilots of other nationalities (mentioned in my recent post "Aces High"). Meridian notes that:

1) They [the astronomical German scores] were nearly all on the Eastern Front (although Galland managed over 100 on the Western Front) against massive odds (far higher than Battle of Britain pilots faced), meaning plenty of targets.

2) The enemy was close, so they flew up to twelve sorties a day.

3) There were no "tours of duty" as such in Luftwaffe: pilots tended to fly until they broke down or were shot down.

To which, getting into QI mode, I could add that:

4) The Soviet Union, as well as being a target-rich environment, gave enemy fighter pilots opportunities in other, more specific, ways. When the Germans attacked the Soviet Union, the Soviet Military Air Forces (or VVS, to use the Russian acronym) were equipped with less effective aircraft, piloted by fliers who were expected to comply with standardized and predictable procedures (there's nothing new about counter-productive micromanagement). As if that wasn't enough, the VVS was extremely short of experienced personnel and had been hit hard by the Red Army purges, which didn't even stop for the German invasion and exacerbated the problem.

There must have been a major vicious circle going on here, with the Soviets hastily getting rookie pilots into the field to replace the ones they themselves had shot or sent to the Gulags. Then another collection of rookie pilots would have to be scraped together to replace the first lot of fledglings, once they'd been shot up by the Luftwaffe's experienced fighter pilots, and so on. These sort of issues on the Eastern Front probably go some way to explaining why Finnish, Romanian and Slovak pilots fighting with the Axis are so unexpectedly prominent in the list of aces.

5) Even when the Soviets started getting their act together, producing more and better planes, sorting out their tactics and amassing a pool of more experienced pilots, the nature of the fighting in the East meant that there was still an unusually reliable supply of targets for capable German fighter pilots. A lot of Soviet air power was dedicated to the support of ground troops - for example, the most-produced Soviet aircraft of the War was the Il-2 "Shturmovik"*, a ground attack aircraft produced in huge numbers (the Wikipedia entry notes that the Il-2 was "the single most produced military aircraft design in all of aviation history as well as the third most produced aircraft in history behind the Cessna 172 and the Polikarpov Po-2"). Il-2's were well-armed and armoured, but ground attack missions involved flying relatively slow and close to the ground, so they they must still have presented an enormous number of targets to fighters using the advantages of height, speed and surprise.

6) As the war progressed, German airspace also became an extremely target-rich environment. In Britain, we remember the Battle of Britain, which lasted 3-4 months and produced a fair crop of fighter aces for the defenders (the top score going to the Czech Sergeant Josef Frantisek with 17 kills). The later Anglo-American strategic bombing of Germany was on an immensely bigger scale and went on for years. I was just a looking at a graph reproduced on the Airminded blog, showing the tonnage of bombs dropped by both sides in the European conflict which makes the point far more forcefully than words. That immense tonnage of bombs dropped meant a vast concentration of Allied bombers over German-controlled airspace, hence more than enough targets for a skilled fighter pilot.

7) In North Africa, the RAF always outnumbered its Axis opponents, but generally used older or lower-performance aircraft than those based in Britain and was involved in a lot of ground-support missions. As on the Eastern Front, this gave German fighters a lot of low-flying slower aircraft to attack using the advantages of height and speed and helps to explain the success of German pilots like Hans-Joachim Marseille (credited with 151 kills over North Africa).

Well, that's more than enough enough about Jerry - more ace-related factiods later....

* to be really pedantic, I think that "shturmovik" was actually a generic Russian term for a "ground attack" aircraft, rather than a specific name for the Il-2, but the name got attached to the Il-2 (aircraft and video game), just as the term "stuka" (the generic German acronym for a dive bomber) got stuck to the Junkers Ju 87.

Anecdotes, statistics, lies and other pre-election nonsense

A friend of ours was assaulted recently. He was walking along in the snow, carrying a pair of boots in a bag. The bag accidentally brushed against the side of a parked car. No damage was caused, but the car’s owner, who was nearby, thought his car had been scraped, went bananas and punched our friend in the face, knocking him to the floor. It was an isolated incident, proving only that there are some aggressive idiots about and that getting the police involved is hardly worth the effort unless they happen to be actually present at the time and can see what’s happening – otherwise it’s one person’s word against another.

With an election coming up, though, politicians are less cautious about panic-inducing over-extrapolation. Our local Tory MP's been caught out making some wild claims which make Central Milton Keynes sound more like South Central LA:

In Milton Keynes, local [Tory] MP Mark Lancaster's office put out a statement last week claiming that there were 6,015 "violent attacks" in the town last year, reflecting a 236% increase over the past decade.

Milton Keynes sounds like Dodge City. That's a "violent attack" every 90 minutes.
However, according to the Milton Keynes Citizen newspaper, the town's police says that the statistics are "extremely misleading".

Local commander Nikki Ross told the local paper that the figure includes "everything from public order offences, to harassment, to allowing a dog to be out of control in a public place".
"The actual number of people who were victims of serious violence was 81," she said.
The point here is that the phrase "violent attacks" does not equate directly with the crime category "violence against the person". For instance, if someone swears at you in the street and you complain to the police about it, that incident goes down as an act of "violence against the person".

Via Freemania. I could do some sort of Dirty Harry-style skit on the David Cameron election poster generator, but frankly, they're not worth it.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Jeremy Clarkson and the rabbi

I don’t like being bossed about. It annoys me. I don’t mind reasonable requests at all. This is a not-very-subtle distinction that people occasionally fail to get. Let me illustrate.

A few days ago I was listening to a radio interview, following this incident:

A US Airways flight was diverted to Philadelphia after a young Jewish man's prayer items triggered a bomb scare, Philadelphia police said.
The incident arose when the man used a phylactery, a small black box Orthodox Jews strap to their head as part of their prayer rituals, police said.

As reported by the BBC. The interviewer was asking a Scottish rabbi to tell the listeners about phylacteries (or tefillin, as they’re known in Hebrew); what they are, how they are used, their religious significance, etc. The rabbi was an informative and charming interviewee, who answered the questions, clearly, directly and simply. He didn’t do that hysterical this-is-an-outrageous-assault-on-the-freeedom-of-religious-expression thing, so beloved of militant God-botherers.

On the contrary, he thought that the sight of people strapping black boxes to themselves must seem weird to an outsider who didn’t know what was going on. He quite understood how it might reasonably cause people on a plane to get jumpy, given all the high-profile terror alerts that have been happening recently. He suggested that believers wishing to use phylacteries should use a little discretion and common sense – say informing the cabin attendants beforehand if they planned to strap black boxes to themselves on an airliner, just to avoid any misunderstanding.
I don’t share his religious beliefs, but I found his lucid, reasonable, friendly manner a refreshing change from the egotistical, blustering rudeness of so many people who I hear shouting their opinions when I turn on the TV or radio.

There was, though, one moment in the interview when I winced. The interviewer wanted to know the thinking behind putting scrolls with sacred texts inside the phylacteries. The rabbi replied that there was no thinking – it was a commandment. And that appeal to authority rather than reason sums up succinctly why I don’t subscribe to a set of religious beliefs or to any authoritarian creed.

I spend very little time listening to the thoughts of Jeremy Clarkson, who is, I think, wrong about most things I’ve ever heard him ranting on about and who is almost up there with Simon Cowell, Gordon Ramsay and Alan Sugar as one of the nation’s foremost providers of egotistical, blustering rudeness.

Clarkson has a bee in his bonnet about speed cameras. He seems to be the poster boy for that tedious army of frustrated, impotent, pompous, Pringle-sweater-wearing, Daily-Mail-reading middle-aged middle-managers who seemingly have nothing better to do with their lives than sit around the nineteenth hole with their cronies, G and T in hand, boring each other senseless with an endless whiny tirade about how speed cameras are a disgraceful infringement of their inalienable right to drive their stupid automotive substitutes for a flagging manhood with their pathetic vanity licence plates as fast as they bloody well like, because they know how to drive, unlike all those other tossers on the road, because having speed cameras is exactly like living in a police state, and how it’s got nothing to do with road safety, because it’s just another stealth tax, because blah, blah, blah, sodding blah…

Let’s just say I don’t exactly relish hearing JC and the Sunshine Band sounding their funky horns on this one.

Only an idiot would think of speed cameras as a stealth tax. They raise revenue, sure, but how many other taxes can you successfully avoid by simply following a simple instruction on a large, clearly visible sign in front of your nose? Like, durr!?

Then there’s the “bad drivers cause accidents, not speed” argument. An exasperated Jeremy Clarkson-style ‘for heaven’s sake’ has to be the only response to that feeble argument – excuse me for a moment, as I theatrically roll my eyes heavenwards. Mmm, that ceiling needs painting some time. Now where was I? Oh yes, bad drivers. For insurance purposes, most accidents are somebody’s “fault”. In reality, it’s generally more complicated than that. Driver error can be a factor, as can road conditions, speed, traffic conditions, errors on the part of more than one driver involved, mechanical failure. But saying that most accidents are “caused” by the binary alternatives of either bad driving or speed, with the proximate cause ruling out all other contributory factors, is just silly.

Some drivers, fast or slow, just drive badly. How you control this is mostly out with the speed camera debate – maybe the driving test should be tougher, perhaps the restrictions on drivers with probationary licences should be more severe, perhaps any number of things. But if you feel that most of the other drivers using the road are idiots, surely it makes sense to control the speed at which those idiots are travelling, by the threat of penalties if they drive too fast? After all, if these bad or inexperienced drivers are dangerous at 30 mph, they’re not going to get any safer if their local speed camera is binned and they decide they can push the pedal to the metal without fear of retribution.

Speed limits and cameras aren’t a panacea for preventing accidents, but elementary physics tells us that speed and inertia govern stopping times and mean that road users have less time to react to emergencies the faster they are travelling. Maybe the speed limits on some individual roads are a bit slower than they need to be, compared with others but, overall, the idea of controlling speed to reduce the frequency and severity of accidents seems perfectly sound and reasonable to me and I’m not troubled by the paranoid fantasy that a sign telling me that I should stick to a safe speed, plus a camera to enforce it, represents the oppressive power of freedom-hating safety Nazis. No, I just think they’re helping to keep my kid safe from being killed by some irresponsible twat who thinks that speed limits are for other people.

Speed limits come into the category of instructions that I’d regard as reasonable requests, as opposed to bossy commands and, as such I don’t have a problem with them.

To be fair, I do have to put in one good word for Jeremy Clarkson. He may be obnoxious and I may disagree with almost everything he says, but at least there is some thinking behind his opinions, something I can engage with and argue about. Arguments over whether or not speed cameras are a good idea belong in the realm where logic and facts, rather than authority and dogma matter. To give the Devil his due, I don’t think Clarkson’s opinions came straight out of a book that states “thou shalt not have speed cameras.”

I don’t believe it’s right to willingly do anything just because it’s a commandment. Thinking it through for yourself and listening to informed advice with a critical ear are the only ways to decide what you believe and what you should do. But don’t take my word for it. You’ve all got to work itself for yourselves. Don’t let anybody tell you what to do.