Tuesday, 30 August 2011

A database of suckers

I've just had a text:

You have still not claimed the compensation you are due for the accident you have. to start the process please reply YES. To opt out text STOP.
Obviously a scam, but how does it work? It didn't take much googling to find out. It seems that the real scamming doesn't start at the point when an unwise person replies to the message (although replying to one of these texts may be a bit pricey). These messages are apparently sent out to random numbers, to see if anybody replies. The numbers of people unwise enough to reply are added to a database of marketing "leads" (AKA "marks", "gulls" or "suckers"). James Wiseman is able to elucidate:
The whole setup is quite elaborate. But in essence there is a computer program that pretends to be the number you see that sends out all the spam messages. Meanwhile, another computer program monitors the text-message mailbox of all of the numbers you see. If you reply, then you are added to a database of numbers to be called (and for future spamming).
The real scamming starts when people who've replied, and therefore passed the gullibility test, start getting marketing calls from dodgy salespeople using the database of soft touches. The current message is apparently a variant of an earlier message, which purportedly alerted people to government debt settlement orders that would have the effect of "wiping off" debts. As you'd expect, most of the dodgy operations who follow up the "leads" from the fall guy database are in the accident management or debt management businesses.

It's a murky business and I'm grateful to the public-spirited Mr Wiseman for dishing out the straight dope on the rest of the process. Like making law or sausages, the squeamish may wish to remain ignorant of the means of production, but if you're still interested in how marketing leads are processed, there's more information here.

Oh, and don't, whatever you do, reply to +447866735879, or any other number sending out a similar message.

Sunday, 28 August 2011


I don't want to go all Stephen Fry on you, but I really love the word "splendid." It's so ... er ... splendidly un-hip and avuncular. So I, for one, welcome the advent of Professor Elemental's rather good single of the same name:

You are, no doubt, already aware of the result of the good Professor's rap duel with Mr B, The Gentleman Rhymer, but in the unlikely event that you have recently been detained in the wilds of Borneo, here's Fighting Trousers, another tutorial in advanced silliness from the superbly-named album The Indifference Engine:

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Toff Aid - a case of charity mugging

One of the arguments that keeps coming up whenever anybody objects to making individual university students fund all their own tuition fees and accumulate unprecedented levels of personal debt goes like this. Why should somebody who empties the bins or cleans offices down around the minimum wage be subsidising the higher education of middle-class kids, who will go on to earn far more money than they could ever dream of?

Now there are plenty of counter arguments to this; for example the deterrent effect of £25,000+ of debt on the bright child of a hard-working refuse collector or office cleaner considering a university career, but something else has also occurred to me. There's a related subsidy that the enthusiasts for high fees are strangely quiet about.

If, as the high-fees enthusiasts insist, there's no justification for the poor subsidising the comfortably-off in this way, why haven't they campaigned with equal conviction to remove the charitable status (AKA tax breaks) of elite private schools, which is a far more outrageous example of money being siphoned out of the pockets of the poor to subsidise those rich enough to buy their children a gold-plated education / networking opportunity? The numbers involved and the savings to be made are a lot smaller, but the level of injustice is far greater and the excuse for maintaining the status quo (the few token scholarship pupils), far weaker.

Mind you, it wouldn't take Sherlock Holmes to work out why this particular dog didn't bark, given where most of the cabinet went to school.

I'm grateful to the author of the Notes from a Broken Society blog, for this post which got me thinking about the issue (it also contains some good blogging on the dire influence of the Tabloid-Political complex on our national debates).

Friday, 26 August 2011

Jive talkin'

I'm assuming that the term "P-38" meaning "a neat chick" refers to the spectacular-looking Lockheed P-38 Lightning, the mount of America's most successful fighter ace, the last 'plane ever flown by author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and the inspiration behind the tailfins adorning Cadillac's chrome-laden gas-guzzlers.
Unfortunately, (or not, depending on your point of view), when you google the terms "P-38" and "neat chick", most of the search results that come back are for videos of unclad young ladies being pleasured in a variety of creative ways, so I may have to outsource my etymological research to the good folk at the QI Talk Forum. In the meanwhile, I can't end any discussion of airplane-related jive talk wthout posting this classic:
Alternative link here.

Watch and learn, Dr Starkey, watch and learn.


Deputy PM stands up for the vulnerable and powerless

Every now and then "Cactus" Clegg says something that doesn't make him sound like a sell-out who's taken on the job of supine mouthpiece for a regressive rich boy's club, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created unequal, having highly resolved that government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich, shall not perish from the earth:

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has defended the UK's human rights laws, saying they have done much to protect the vulnerable and the powerless.

Writing in the Guardian, he said governments had "belittled" and "trashed" such laws in recent years.

There's nothing there I'd disagree with. In fact, he almost sounds like a liberal again. If he walked the talk, he might even regain some of his lost credibility, but I'm pretty sure that, in terms of political influence, as opposed to personal wealth, Nick is at one with the vulnerable and powerless.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Headline of the day

Voters pick Nutter to take on Edwards as Republican nominee for Virginia Senate in 21st District 

Sadly for nominative determinism fans, Dave Nutter was not the Tea Pary candidate, an honour that went to one Tripp Godsey:

Nutter based his campaign on two major issues: jobs and electability. He touted his experience working with economic development groups through his job at Virginia Tech as an indicator of his experience in job creation.

Although Godsey worked to challenge Nutter from the right, Nutter fell back on his high ratings from the Family Foundation, National Federation of Independent Business and National Rifle Association as proof of his fiscal and social conservatism.

Godsey was recruited by the Roanoke Tea Party in June to take on Edwards, whom the group identified as a top target. Godsey spent the campaign speaking out in favor of limiting government, especially at the federal level; shaking up public education by letting parents send their children to the school of their choice; and limiting taxes by means including the repeal of property taxes — a primary income source for many localities.

From The Roanoake Times

How did it feel for you? Was it scary?

Why did a relatively minor earthquake just hit the US east coast? Tracy Grant attempted to explain this rare event to small children in the Washington Post:

How did it feel for you? Was it scary? Cool? A little bit of both?

...The U.S. Geological Survey, an agency that keeps track of earthquakes, offers a good way of thinking about earthquakes. Put your fingers together as if you’re going to snap them. When your fingers are together, they don’t move up and down or side to side, but when you snap, your fingers move and slide apart. The same thing happens with pieces of the Earth’s crust. Most of the time, the Earth’s rocks are together, just like your fingers, but in an earthquake, the rocks slide apart. 

Joseph Farah of World Net Daily had a stab at explaining the event to the sort of grown-ups likely to vote for a Tea Party candidate:

Occasionally God really does shake things up as a sign to us of the consequences of disobedience and indifference to our Creator.

Yes, I really believe that.

I welcome the ridicule that will inevitably come from a statement like that. 

It would rude to ignore the impressively-mustachioed Mr Farah's kind invitation to mock, so here's my take on the whole divine displeasure hypothesis. I haven't yet come across a convincing reason to supposed that the universe is under the control of a sentient being who takes a special interest in the human race, but let's imagine, for the sake of argument, that such an omnipotent higher intelligence is looking down at our world through a celestial microscope.

If He/She/It was looking down at the USA recently, it wouldn't be too fanciful to attribute the recent earthquake to the Creator's head being repeatedly banged against His/Her/Its desk in sheer frustration after seeing the list of Republican Presidential nominees. Having endowed the human race with the faculty of reason, it would test any deity's patience to see the inhabitants of the most powerful nation on earth reduced to choosing their future leaders from a rag-bag of gibbering loons who'd disgrace a contest to elect the Village Idiot of the Year.

Seriously though, Joe, that's one epic 'tash. If you ever quit the day job, there's always a place for you in a Village People tribute band. All together, now:

Young man, there's no need to feel down. ..
Hat tip.

Badge engineering

Given what I've already blogged on the subject, you won't be surprised that this piece of news from last week gets a "bad ideas" tag from me:

Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced Tuesday that the Maritime Command and Air Command will revert to names used more than four decades ago — the Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force — while the army, now known as the Land Force Command, will be renamed the Canadian Army...

Under the PierreTrudeau government in 1968, Defence Minister Paul Hellyer removed the royal designation from the navy and air force and created one central command called the Canadian Forces. Hellyer said MacKay's decision will create the very divisions the reunification aimed to eliminate.

"We'll be right back where they were when I found them. They would fight for turf to the extent they would really ignore the needs of the other services and the needs of the force as a whole."
CBC News, Canada

The "Royal" bit is regressive, but I could live with that - Hellyer put his finger on the real issue when he mentioned turf wars. The supposed big idea behind bringing back the RCN/RCAF/Canadian Army split was to honour the nation's military by recognising their past sacrifices. Personally, I don't think that slapping a heritage badge on an organisation is the best way to do that.

By creating a unified command in 1968, the Canadians sent out a signal that their defence establishment prioritised efficient allocation of resources to personnel on the ground (or on the sea or in the air) over the opportunity for generals, admirals and air marshals to create their own little fiefdoms, jealously hoarding scarce resources, lest they fall into the hands of the "enemy" (AKA the other two services). In short, it put the interests of ordinary service personnel, (not to mention ordinary taxpayers) ahead of the interests of the military's senior managers and empire-building bureaucrats. I can't think of a better practical way to honour the services and the country. It was a model to be emulated, not scrapped.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Where's Muammar?

The mystery surrounding Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s whereabouts was resolved today as the dictator announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in a town hall meeting in Concord, New Hampshire.

In announcing his candidacy, the Libyan madman joins a Republican field which is believed to number in excess of seven hundred candidates.

While some New Hampshire Republicans seemed surprised to see Col. Gaddafi shaking hands and kissing babies at the Concord town hall, an aide to the Libyan strongman said his transformation to GOP candidate made perfect sense.

“In those final days in Tripoli he was becoming increasingly disconnected from reality,” said the aide. “So I think he’ll fit right in.” 

Top snark from the Borowitz Report. It's almost too close to the truth to be funny:

In any other party and in any other country, an individual may occasionally rise to the top in spite of being an uneducated ignoramus. In today’s Republican Party ‘in spite of’ is not the phrase we need. Ignorance and lack of education are positive qualifications, bordering on obligatory. Intellect, knowledge and linguistic mastery are mistrusted by Republican voters, who, when choosing a president, would apparently prefer someone like themselves over someone actually qualified for the job....

The population of the United States is more than 300 million and it includes some of the best and brightest that the human species has to offer, probably more so than any other country in the world. There is surely something wrong with a system for choosing a leader when, given a pool of such talent and a process that occupies more than a year and consumes billions of dollars, what rises to the top of the heap is George W Bush. Or when the likes of Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin can be mentioned as even remote possibilities.

Richard Dawkins


World belief systems - every little helps

There was an interesting article in Der Spiegel a little while back, about the rise of secularism and the study of what non-believers do/don't believe in. Secularists, according to the article, make up around 15 percent of the global population (about a billion people). The source for the 15% figure was adherents.com.

Obviously, any figures about rival belief systems and their popularity come with a massive health warning. Playing God's advocate for a moment, the figures show that a lot of the non-believers come from China. Although the Chinese Communist Party has officially implemented a 'free religious belief policy', the CPC is an atheist body that has historically been hostile to religion and, as far as I know, still maintains that religious belief is incompatible with party membership.Under those circumstances, it's safe to assume that some of China's avowed non-believers came to secularism under duress.

Having said that, the most successful religions have had hundreds of years in which to exterminate rival faiths or intimidate their followers, indoctrinate children too young to think for themselves ('give me a child until the age of seven'), threaten apostates, appeal to tribal/caste loyalty, apply guilt and moral blackmail and enforce respect for the clergy and their interests with authoritarian sanctions. This has only changed relatively recently in liberal, more or less secular, states where clergy are now limited to using soft power, in the form of religious education or subtle social pressures like guilt and harnessing the desire to conform.

More conservative Islamist states, however, still retain old-time religion's historical prerogative of coercive power, ranging from fines and ostracism to physical threats against people of rival faiths, non-believers and apostates.

In short, I'll see your hundred million-odd Chinese who might have been pressured into atheism and raise you as many Pakistanis and Iranians who'd be ill-advised to big up any doubts they have about Islam, not to mention the millions of folk who are Christians or Muslims only because these imperial religions spent a lot of time and effort crushing whatever local belief systems they encountered in conquered lands.

Anyway, even taken with such a large pinch of salt, the figures are interesting in themselves. The main thing that strikes me is that, in global terms, playing belief systems is a winner-takes-all game. I knew that Christianity and Islam were the world's largest religions, but the degree of their relative dominance surprised me. The figures stack up like supermarket market share data, with a handful of massive oligopolies dominating and the smaller players being left to scrabble around for crumbs.

If the world's belief systems were UK supermarkets,* Christianity would be Tesco, the massive steroid-pumped market leader, with Islam coming in second, like a slightly more successful version of either Asda or Sainsburys (which ever one is in second place these days). At around the 15% level, Secularism and Hinduism come in nearer to where Asda/Sainsburys have actually been in terms of market share.

Once you're down below Hinduism, the market share figures drop off a cliff. Buddhism and Chinese traditional religion combined come in at around 12% (slightly more market share than Morrisons). Then you've got "primal-indigenous / diasporic" at give or take 6% - this would be bigger than Waitrose's 3.9% market share if "primal-indigenous/diasporic" was one belief system, but, of course, it's split into hundreds of local traditions

The columns of the Big Few tower over the tiny right hand column of "Other" belief systems which includes what I'd previously thought of as relatively "big name" religions (Sikhism 0.36% and Judaism 0.22%), along with a surprisingly large number of Spiritists, a less surprisingly large number of Juche-sts,**  plus assorted Baha'is, Zoroastrians,  Jains, Shintoists, and so on.

 It doesn't surprise me that secularism has less of a voice than the other big belief systems. Although the studies quoted in Der Spiegel suggest that many secularists broadly share certain characteristics and attitudes, they're not united by any doctrine other than rejecting assertions that come without evidence, however often or loudly such assertions are made. With no unifying dogma or programme other than not privileging unprovable assertions above any other point of view,*** they're never going to present the same united front as an on-message corporatist religion with everybody quoting from the same holy mission statement.

What does surprise me is how much overwhelmingly successful winners of the belief system game, like Christianity with its billions of followers, fear what they're apocalyptically calling "the unrelenting march of secularism". Given the immense tracts of humanity's mental space they've successfully colonised, this looks less like the fear of the marginal and oppressed than the paranoia of a once-potent tyrant whose grip on absolute power is slowly slipping.


* I know the figures are out of date, but they'll do for what's only a rough comparison.

**Less surprising, because I imagine that the N. Korean alternatives to Juche tend to involve labour camps or a bullet in the back of the head, (assuming the basket-case regime can still spare the bullets).

***Individual secularists may have very strong views on particular issues, but with the term "secularist" embracing people as diverse as Bertrand Russell, Billy Connolly, Barry Manilow, Ayn Rand, Frank Zappa, Freidrich Neitzsche, Katharine Hepburn and Warren Buffet, I don't think we can assume there is one rigid ideology to bind them all. Hat tip to My Daily Trek for finding the diverse list of the ungodly and thanks, too, for feeling so sorry for we benighted infidels. I'll be giving your expression of pity pride of place on the mantelpiece, right next to the chocolate teapot.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Watch and learn

It's a bit late, but here's one of the most sensible, succinct comments anyone has made about the UK riots and their aftermath:
Norway loses 92 children and suggests more democracy; we lose 12 JD sports and some Nandos and demand the army and rubber bullets. 

Courtesy of an unknown tweeter. It's a pity that we Brits seem to have learned nothing from the Scandinavians, except how to consume their angsty crime fiction and flat pack furniture.


Saturday, 20 August 2011

Retro-futurist artifact

If this was a prop from an old science fiction movie, I'd want to see the film. In fact, it's a real piece of hardware, called the Convair F2Y Sea Dart, a machine that wouldn't have looked out of place in an episode of Stingray or Thunderbirds.

In the early years of the jet age, the US Navy wasn't certain that those new-fangled supersonic jets would ever be able to land on one of their aircraft carriers. The result of this uncertainty was the Sea Dart, an experimental waterborne jet fighter. The Sea Dart took off and landed on retractable skis that tucked into the bottom of the watertight fuselage (you can see the extended skis at the bottom of the picture).

Like most experimental high-performance aircraft, the Sea Dart had its teething troubles and these hadn't been solved before it became clear that it was possible to land fast jets on flat tops and the project was cancelled, although not before the Sea Dart had become the only seaplane ever to break the sound barrier.

Video footage of the Sea Dart here.

Photo from the archives of the San Diego Air and Space Museum.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Sensible children! I have no power over them.

Here's a bit of nightmarish childhood nostalgia from the 1970's. A sinister, black-robed figure lies in wait to trap unwary children (link provided here for anybody looking at the preview on Facebook).. Whether you're old enough to remember public information films like this, or young enough to find them quaint or bizarre, it's well worth visiting the National Archives' extensive on-line collection of British public information films from 1945 to 2006.

If you're my age, you'll remember a lot of these - the clueless holiday makers, Joe and Petunia who used to promote the coastguard service, Rolf Harris on the benefits of teaching your kids to swim, Jimmy Savile clunk clicking, Tufty the road-safety squirrel, Charley the cat, reminding kids to beware of strange men bearing puppies, Patrick Allen, the voice of authority, urging people to save power during the 1973 fuel crisis and the stern warning about putting a rug on your polished floor - you might as well set a man trap... It all looks a bit quaint, patrician and nanny state-ish now, but at least then you could maintain the illusion that there was a benevolent, if stuffy, authority that actually cared whether ordinary people lived or died, an illusion that's looking increasingly questionable.

Mind you, that illusion would have collapsed a hell of a lot sooner if the Protect and Survive films had ever gone out for real. It would have taken more than Patrick Allen's authoritative delivery to persuade the survivors of nuclear Armageddon to keep calm and carry on with neatly wrapping and labelling the dead people in their houses, rather than just screaming 'You Maniacs! You blew it up!'

Homeopathy reconsidered

I used to think homeopathy was a daft idea. Take the whole dilution thing. In his splendid book How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, Francis Wheen pointed out that a typical dilution of 30C, (one part cure to 10030 parts water) represents one single molecule of homeopathic ingredient diluted by more water than exists in all the world's oceans. The alleged active ingredient of the homeopathic cold and flu remedy oscillococcinum is, according to Wheen, 'duck's liver', 'diluted to an even more fantastic ratio of 200C.' That's one molecule, diluted by more molecules than exist in the entire observable universe.

It turns out, though, that Wheen was wrong about oscillococcinum. A manufacturer of homeopathic pills, Boiron, is currently making legal threats against an Italian blogger who dared to make fun of oscillococcinum. This piece of lawfare got a mention on quite a few web sites, including  a couple I follow, with links to some articles about oscillococcinum. Wheen was right about the absurd levels of dilution, but interestingly wrong about the allegedly active ingredient of oscillococcinum. Wheen thinks it's duck's liver. In fact, it's a bit more complicated than that:
In the 1919 flu epidemic a physician who did not understand that artifacts on the slide, probably bubbles, move randomly due to Brownian motion. Looking at the tissues of flu patients with a microscope, he found what he thought was not only the cause of influenza, but the cause of all diseases: small cocci (round balls) that oscillated under the microscope. He found these wiggling bubbles in all the tissues of all the ill people he examined and thought he discovered the true cause of all disease. Sigh. Yet another cause of all illness. He is the only person, before or since, to see these oscillating cocci. Hence the name. 
From Science-Based Medicine. Apparently, the researcher who "discovered" these oscillating cocci thought he'd seen a lot of them in duck livers. So homeopaths mashed up duck liver because they thought it contained flu-causing cocci, presumably on the homeopathic principle that "like cures like." Only it was a mistake. There is, literally, no such thing as oscillococcinum. The term "daft" no longer seems adequate.

Right, I think I've got my head round this. To make a best-selling homeopathic flu remedy:
  1. Take an ingredient that doesn't exist.
  2. Dilute it to a point where, even if it did exist, it would stop existing 
  3. Add sugar and evaporate the water containing the non-existent trace of the non-existent ingredient to make a sugar pill.*
  4. Flog sugar pills at whatever price the market will bear.
Wanna buy some?

*These are just the most outrageous stages of the process. As Guy Chapman points out in his detailed dissection of "the canonical quack remedy", 'Oscillococcinum exhibits fractal wrongness. However you zoom in on its errors, you just find more errors just as big.' Massive kudos for the phrase "fractal wrongness."

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Middle England takes a stress pill and thinks things over

Krishnan Guru-Murthy's response to last weeks' riots is refreshingly free from hyperventilating moral panic:

So far – in very round figures – around 3,000 people have been arrested and around 1,500 have been charged. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that the police caught only one in twenty of the troublemakers. That makes 60,000. Call it 100,000 for the sake of generosity. From a population of 62 million this is 0.16 per cent. Let us again be generous to the argument and say they must all have morally bankrupt families. Call it 1 per cent of the public. Are we in national moral crisis territory yet? 

That's good to hear, but this is remarkable:

The “cause” of this riot, if there is a single cause, is actually rather simple: it was fun. Hardened criminals – the inner-city gang leaders – probably started the violence, and sent out the Blackberry messages to their gangs inviting them to join in. But others joined in the looting or the stone-throwing simply because they failed to think through the consequences. Many of these criminals are no different from Nick Clegg, who at the age of 16 narrowly escaped a conviction in Germany for setting fire to a professor’s cactus collection for a “drunken lark”. Or, for that matter, from the Bullingdon Club, of which David Cameron and Boris Johnson were members, which goes around smashing up restaurants.
Daniel Knowles, writing in the Telegraph, of all places.  It's almost as if Middle England is actually calming down and getting a sense of proportion. As I say, remarkable.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Basic fault finding

Everybody now seems to know exactly why waves of rioting broke out in Britain over the last week. Just in case you're not quite up to speed, here's the best guide to the consensus of informed opinion.

It remidns me of an old Dilbert cartoon. Various stereotypical office drones are in a meeting, brainstorming a problem. Everybody sitting round the table comes up with a solution that just happens to exactly match their personal area of expertese or prejudices. In the last panel, a porcupine sitting at the end of the table declares, 'We must stick them with quills! It's the only way!'

Friday, 12 August 2011

Andante festivo

If this was his idea of "festive", Jean Sibelius clearly needed to get out more. "Solemn", "austere", or "wistful" would be a lot nearer the mark. Wonderful, nonetheless - this piece almost brings a lump to my throat around 1' 30".

Lifelong learning, RIP?

The Open University may long ago have shaken off the image of kipper-tied lecturers presenting physics primers on late-night BBC2, but it has retained a warmly regarded reputation with the public as being the place for later-in-life education – whether it's for a change of career, or correcting the educational omissions of a misspent youth.

But that reputation may be set to change, following the OU's announcement of its new fees structure for students in England from September 2012. The price of a full-time degree (120 credits) will rise from about £1,400 to an average of £5,000 a year, with a part-time degree (60 credits) coming in at £2,500, where previously it had been around £700...

The £5,000 may be a bargain when compared with the new fees of many other universities, but will it be a step too far for those who want to learn for fun or gently dip a toe back into education?

Ian Aitch in the Guardian 

We no longer provide funding to higher education institutions (HEIs) and further education colleges (FECs) to teach students who are studying for a qualification that is equivalent to, or lower than, a qualification which they have already achieved. 

Higher Education Funding Council for England

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Speaking truth to power

Earlier today, one Lucy Nobbe hired a plane to fly over the over headquarters of the Standard and Poors rating agency in New York towing a banner that read:

Thanks for the downgrade, you should all be fired. 

I heartily concur.

David Cameron - soft on feral youths

Conservative leader David Cameron has said that gangs of rioting youths must be "desperately embarrassed" about CCTV pictures of them posing in the exclusive gangsta uniform of a £9.99 Primark hoody.

He told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show "we do things when we're young that we deeply regret". 

Enough of this namby-pamby talk; there's only one language your hooligan understands:

You first, Dave.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

There, I fixed it

So this, in a nutshell, is how we will set out to rebuild the broken society.

Harnessing the strength of conservative values to the power of progressive ideals.

David Cameron, April 2010

After a year of harnessing the strength of conservative values to the power of progressive ideals, we now seem to be living in a J G Ballard novel:

There were huge blazes in Enfield, Croydon and Clapham Junction, with one attended by 10 fire engines...

Serious fires were also reported in Ealing, Barking and Dagenham, Greenwich, Merton and Southwark....

The Croydon Tramlink was partly broken after the extraordinary violence inflicted on the borough. Twenty miles north, smoke from a new blaze in Enfield filled the sky after looters torched a Sony CD warehouse in Solar Way...

One Ealing resident, Helen, told how she and her family had heard raiders break into the shop beneath their flat in Ealing Green last night. "We were utterly terrified and just didn't know what to do," she said. "You could hear people shouting: 'Let's start fires.' We just ran as fast as we could towards Ealing Common." They spent the night at a Premier Inn in Hangar Lane...

By 7.15pm, Tesco in Rye Lane, Peckham, had been looted of champagne. 

London Evening Standard

Next time Dave wants to fix something, maybe he should just reach for the gaffer tape, like any normal person. Or, better still, look through Yellow Pages and get a professional in.

Saturday, 6 August 2011


And he shows them pearly white

During July 1941, [112 squadron, Royal Air Force] was one of the first in the world to become operational with the P-40 Tomahawk, which it used in both the fighter and ground attack role, with the Air Headquarters, Western Desert. Inspired by the unusually large air inlet on the P-40, the squadron began to emulate the "shark mouth" logo used on some German Messerschmitt Bf 110s of Zerstörer Geschwader 76 earlier in the war. This practice was later followed by P-40 units in other parts of the world (including the Flying Tigers, American volunteers serving with the Chinese Air Force). In December, the Tomahawks were replaced by the updated P-40 Kittyhawk, which the squadron used for the remainder of its time in North Africa, often as a fighter 


More or less disappointing

Here's an interesting footnote on the "browesrgate", AKA the "Internet Explorer for Dummies" fiasco. The BBC, which should know better, ran with the story. The first episode in the new series of Radio 4's excellent More or Less programme dished the dirt on what happened. Apparently, somebody at the beeb was diligent enough to ask a mathematician and a statistician whether the "survey" allegedly revealing the intellectual shortcomings of IE users  looked kosher. Both experts concluded that the story sounded fishy in several ways. In particular, the quoted average IQ figure for IE users was so low that the alleged IE users would scarcely have had the basic skills needed to use a web browser of any kind. But the alarm bells were disregarded and the corporation ran with the story anyway.

The beeb did withdraw the story later, but only when they discovered that the research company that produced the survey was bogus. Real companies are already flooding the media with "surveys" that have more to do with PR and marketing than accuracy and objectivity. Given how much information effluent is already sloshing around the system, there's a good chance that anything that smells suspect is just that. Tabloids are just a series of pipes for delivering sewage from the PR toilet to the consumer's brainstem, but I expected better information hygiene in the BBC.

More sad news from hoaxland. "Jacob Rees-Moog-gate" is no more. Apparently, 'Rees-Mogg closes down @jakereesmogg threat of legal action'. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Friday, 5 August 2011

I don't smoke...

... but somehow I manage not to look quite this smug about it.

From a 1960's government anti-smoking campaign, as shared by the National Archives on Flikr.

I didn't do it. Nobody saw me do it, you can't prove anything

Stephen Hester, CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland, was being interviewed on the radio this morning, at what looks like the start of another global financial meltdown. I actually heard him tell the interviewer that the 2008 global financial crisis was 'not a banking crisis.'* As he seems to inhabit some sort of alternate reality, perhaps he wouldn't mind taking investment advice from a fictional pre-school child:

"Occasionally my mummy has the radio on when I am having lunch in the kitchen and even though I am not really paying attention and am far more interested in the way in which my peas and carrots have been arranged into a rather manic, smiling face, I was able to work out for myself that investing in Greek government bonds would be, at best, inadvisable.

"I was three at the time."

She added: "I am sure that many will say that I could not possibly have garnered the experience necessary to run a major international financial institution given that much of my time has been spent chasing the cat with a spoon.

"But I'm not sure the Royal Bank of Scotland can actually withstand another 24 hours of being run by someone with a banking qualification.

Gemma Logan, aged four, doesn't really exist.

Stephen Hester is 50 years old.

* It was on the Today programme, if anybody cares.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Your sense of humour clearly does not match your undoubted intellectual prowess

What a let-down. Apparently, you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet. First we found out that some rascal had been using Twitter to impersonate the Honourable Member for North East Somerset. Then we discovered that the latest rigorous scientific study, proving that users of Internet Explorer have a lower IQ than people who use other web browsers, was a hoax. It’s like Santa and his flying reindeer all over again.

Snarky comments aside, the Jacob Rees-Mogg spoof was several orders of magnitude better than the Intenet Explorer one.

OK, I’ll cede bragging rights to the IE prankster(s) for fooling media outlets such as CNN, the Daily Fail, the Torygraph and Forbes. But it’s old news that plenty of churnalists are happy to regurgitate any old press release, especially one dressed up as a survey, providing you can convince them that the stuff they’re cutting and pasting comes from a reputable* PR agency. There's still enough gullibility and vanity in the world for a story like this to gain some traction, but a lot of us already discount lifestyle surveys as probably bogus anyway.  After all, the same discredited ones have been coming round year after year - remember those articles about the boffin who allegedly came up with a formula 'proving' that January 19th is the most miserable day of the year? It was an evidence-free guess, made up to help a travel company flog winter sun holidays and like any fib, it hasn't become any more true just by being repeated over and over again. A bogus lifestyle survey? Oh, look, 'Dog Bites Man' it says here... **

The individual responsible for Jacob Rees-Mogg's spoof tweets was splendid, though. This artful scoundrel has created the platonic ideal of the eccentric high Tory, of whom Gyles Brandreth is a mere pale imitation. Viz:

Is there any greater pleasure than an English picnic of hard cheese, local ham, home made pickle and intelligent conversation?

I am beginning to have some doubts about that cheese. I feel most unusual.

I sense that if I were to tweet that it had been a glorious day with a cerulean sky there would be furious demands that I retract forthwith.

One forgives the barbs or lapses of taste my tweets have been known to provoke, but intolerance without wit is nothing more than bigotry.

Last night I dreamt of Lembit Opik again. Had Mr de Winter's second wife suffered the same one doubts Rebecca would have made it into print.

When King Phillip the handsome of Spain died his wife refused to accept it, sleeping beside the corpse for 3 putrid years. Take heed

An elderly Scots gentleman wandered into the chamber this p.m. and ignored all attempts, including my own, to reveal his broader purpose.

a glass of sherry so delightful that one is almost inclined to forgive Spain for her position over the Gibraltar question.

Disastrous breakfast at well known London hotel. Purportedly poached egg on toast, more like a distressed jellyfish on a Borrower's doormat.

Sorry I was rather dreaming there. I had visions of a cult following me and lost the plot a bit. Audentis Fortuna iuvat.

Genius - drink your fill here, while stocks last.

One suspects the real Jacob Rees-Mogg of being irked, not by the imposture, but by the realisation that his own repartee will never court such avidity.

* For a given value of ‘reputable.’

** Although kudos for fooling the folks at the Daily Mash and The Register who aren't usually quite as gullible as most allegedly serious news outlets. As News Thump (who were also spoofed) put it:

Those hardest hit by the revelation that the IE research was fake were spoof news websites. Many sites enjoyed making fun of those stupid enough to still be using Internet Explorer without knowing who the real butt of the joke was.

A spokesperson for NewsThump said, “We do our best to ensure all our victims are real and genuine, but we’re big enough to admit our mistakes when we invariably make them.”

“So you’re now reading a spoof article that’s lampooning a spoof website for writing a spoof article which was based on what we now know to be spoof research.”

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Holy wars in the classroom

Dwight Simon, a history teacher from Boston is worried about the prominence given to war and battles in school history lessons:

...by making war a priority in our curriculum – organizing teaching units around it, surrounding ourselves with gripping stories about it – we actually make war a priority in ways that it wasn’t. We construct a past that never was, and in doing so construct a future that need not be: a world in which war is a constant presence, a fellow traveler....

He's also got some interesting thoughts on where those gripping stories come from - not from the battlefields themselves, but from the narratives constructed after the event, by politicians and generals, to justify the sunk cost in human life and by the bereaved, to give some sort of meaning to their loss:

Fearing that some evil is gratuitous, that everything might not happen for a reason, we seek to invest such events with meaning. But rarely does that meaning come from simple admiration for lives well lived. We must act in such a way, echoing Lincoln, that these dead shall not have died for nothing. 

As a result, he fears that the righteousness of war has been turned into a dogma and violence has been sanctified, even after futile or disastrous military campaigns that achieved nothing to justify the loss of life. 'Violence is the spirituality of our society ... It has virtually been accorded the status of a religion' goes a quote from one Walter Wink in Simon's essay. In insisting that sacrifice of latest war could never have been made in vain, we may be helping to make the next one more likely. It's not an argument for pacifism, but it's a compelling appeal to not to censor our critical faculties and rubber-stamp the case for war out of misplaced respect. It's well worth reading the whole thing here.

At the very least, keeping a critical head on when thinking about war is a damn sight more respectful than what some scandal sheets got up to while they were emotionally claiming to 'support our boys' .

Pecking disorder

I generally admire people who tinker about and use their creativity to solve problems, and wish them well, even if their ideas don’t always work out. The world would be a poorer and duller place without them. Occasionally, though, somebody steps over the border between creative thinking territory into the district of “what the hell were you thinking?” Randall E Wise, CEO of Animalens Inc. of Massachusetts is one such:

Randy Wise's decision to sell contact lenses for chickens is not the result of a sudden impulse. He's been preparing for this since he was a teenager in California.

Back in the early 1960s, his father, a chicken rancher, got involved with a similar venture. The idea then was to reduce the cannibalism of egg-laying chickens with a lens that distorted their vision. The business flopped, but the goal -- improving the economics of egg production -- is something Wise didn't stop thinking about.

Where daddy’s distorting contact lenses had failed, Randy thought he could succeed with red-tinted chicken contacts:

Concept: Make and market red-tinted contact lenses for egg-laying chickens, altering their behaviour so they will fight less, eat less, and produce more eggs -- increasing egg-ranch profitability.

From a profile on the entrepreneurial web site Inc.com. It doesn’t take much imagination to work out that there’s a down side to this bright idea, especially if you’re a chicken. First off, the so-called “cannibalism” problem consists of the chickens’ “pecking order” getting out of hand and it’s generally a symptom that the birds are being kept in stressful or inhumane conditions. As the Poultry Site puts it:

Predisposing factors include overcrowding, excessive light intensity or variation (e.g. through shafts of light in the house), high temperatures, nutritional deficiencies, feed form (mash takes longer to consume than pellets), tenosynovitis and other diseases affecting mobility, boredom, and strain of bird.

So, it’s not the most elegant solution as (if it worked) it would only mitigate the damage caused by the conditions the chickens are kept in, rather than removing the factors cause chickens to get so stressed that they peck one another to death.

But it doesn’t work anyway . Here’s the full, sorry, story:

In the 1950s farmers noticed that the use of red lights in the henhouse tended to pacify the chickens, reduce their activity and hence minimize cannibalism. The explanation is that when a chicken only sees red, it can't see the blood on another chicken and hence will not engage in pecking. Unfortunately the light levels had to be so low that the personnel working in the coop could not see well enough to discharge their duties. There was brief attempt to outfit the chickens with red glasses, (more like goggles) but they tended to fall off or snag. In the 1960s a farmer by the name of Irvin Wise tried to use contact lenses for the first time to manipulate the chicken's vision to minimize pecking. Irvin's contacts were not red but blurred vision as empirical evidence had shown that birds with cataracts would not engage in pecking. The technology was not mature enough and the experiment failed as the chickens were either blinded by the contacts or the contacts would fall out too easily. Ten years years after, Irvin's son, Randall Wise, tries to revive his father's idea while he is attending Harvard Business School and even produces a case study around the concept but finds no venture capitalist that will fund his idea and goes into software development instead. He does very well at this and sells his company for a tidy sum to Lotus Development Corp. and having kept in touch all this time with the poultry industry, plows the profit into his new Chicken Contact Lens company AnimaLens.

Considering what had gone before, ranchers were sceptical in adopting the lenses, and time proved them right. Though the lenses fit much better and had less of a tendency to fall out, they were difficult to apply and still tended to blind the birds outright over time. The lenses were not gas permeable as soft contact lenses are, they interfered with the nictating membrane and combined with the ammonia gas generated by the urine from the massed chickens which is strong enough to corrode all metals but stainless steel would cause no end of pain for the birds. By the mid 90's the company had abandoned the product and the concept is pretty much abandoned now.

From Everything2.com.

Sometimes, I love it when a plan doesn’t come together. The photograph, by the way, is one of our newly acquired chickens (a Cotswold black tail)