Friday, May 27

Inevitable and depressing.

Doctors want knives banned:

A&E doctors are calling for a ban on long pointed kitchen knives to reduce deaths from stabbing.

A team from West Middlesex University Hospital said violent crime is on the increase - and kitchen knives are used in as many as half of all stabbings.

They argued many assaults are committed impulsively, prompted by alcohol and drugs, and a kitchen knife often makes an all too available weapon.

The research is published in the British Medical Journal.

The researchers said there was no reason for long pointed knives to be publicly available at all.

They consulted 10 top chefs from around the UK, and found such knives have little practical value in the kitchen.


Of course, those chefs are well aware that any ban enacted probably won't apply to professional kitchens, so they can say whatever they want.

Look, I like cooking, and I have a large collection of kitchen knives, and have never stabbed anyone. My knives are useful, and long knives are far more useful than short ones. Short kitchen knives, actually, are crap. Good kitchen knives are expensive, too, and I'm not going to pay to have all mine replaced with crappy non-pointy ones. If a ban is implemented, they're going to have to get a warrant and invade my house; I'm not going to meekly take them all round to the police station.

Natalie describes this as

the steady progress of the modern world towards a parody of itself


and is nearly right, except that parody is supposed to be funny.

It's not even worth taking the piss out of these fuckwits. Time and time again, such ridiculous illogical ill-thought-out bollocks has ended up becoming the law. These tossers may be stupid, but they're clever enough to get their way. I just can't be bothered any more.

What I will say is this. Take the number of kitchen knives currently in the UK. Take the number of assaults involving such knives. Compare.
 



There's always one.

How disappointing. The code has been solved by some woman called Diandra with a computer program.

What is it with some people? This whole thing was clearly set up to be a bit of fun, and, unsurprisingly, some smug git comes along and shits on it. Of course a computer can solve it: it wasn't advanced military-grade encryption and wasn't supposed to be. The whole point of it was that twenty different unrelated people had to track each other down. The point wasn't merely to break the code; it was the process of breaking the code. If Diandra was so desperate to find out what the result was, could she not have just solved it for herself and not posted it in public? Well, no, because she didn't want to find out the result; she wanted to show off. She says:

Some may think it's cheating, but why work hard when you can work smart!


Well, Diandra, here are some suggestions for other ways you could help people to work smart. When someone's watching a murder-mystery, you could look up the book it's based on and tell them who the murderer is before the end, saving them the hard work of deduction. When people are playing poker, you could position mirrors behind all the players' shoulders, saving them the hard work of guessing who's got the best hand. When someone's out hunting ducks with a gun, you could flood the lake with duck poison, saving them the hard work of stealth and aiming. I'm sure everyone will be terribly grateful to you for saving them all that hard work, you smug, self-satisfied, idiotic, tiresome bastard.
 



Thursday, May 26

Tax.

I've got two letters from the Inland Revenue over the last couple of weeks. The first told me that I overpaid my tax for last year, and so came with a cheque for about twelve quid. Not much, but a nice surpise all the same. The second letter told me that I underpaid my tax for last year by well over a grand, and so will be taxed more over the coming year. Bugger.

Both letters quote the same national insurance number, so they've not confusedly mistaken me for two people. I've no idea what's going on, and neither, it seems, have they.

The really disturbing mistake isn't theirs, though. The underpayment letter says that the reason I underpaid is that Reed Employment, for whom I was working when I was with the Royal Mail, paid absolute zero tax on my behalf. Now, I know that Reed deducted the tax from my wages and I have the payslips to prove it. If they didn't pass that money on to the government, what did they do with it?
 



The code.

I've received a couple of comments to the post about the mystery code-breaking game, which have led to this forum, which has provided me with a whole bunch of clues. Plus I've found another one off my own bat.

So...

q=i
n=t
d=h
k=v
x=g

o=c
y=p

f=n
v=y
r=f
z=d

With those substitutions made, we get this:

th__v_gdp_h__fh_n,__f__png_pn__f_f_v_gp__.
_dp_hf___hpny_h_h__t____cn__h_n_t,
f__gc_fpn__fn_cp_hv_g__n_p__pf_ypg_hig_
hnpf__n___,_fp_hf-___h_npnh;nd____tdpn_n__,
p_pch._d_yhv_gp__hf__vh_ndh__g_fhvp
_cg_dp__dp_hpf_ndpf_v_g___y_pv_f_!


... which is clearly bollocks. Even allowing for spaces, there's never going to be a place for "hpny" or "fhvp". So, try substituting the other way around, and we get this instead:

fz___x__v_z_x_zqr,_x___vr__vrqx_n_x_x_v__.
q_v_z_x__zvrkqz_zx_fqn_x_rxdznrxf,
_x___q_vrqx_rx_v_z_x_nqrdv__v__kv_nz_
_qzrv__nrq__,q_voz_-_q_znrvrz;r_qnqnf_vrqrqn,
v_v_z.q_xkz_x_v__z__x_z_r_z_x___z_vn___
_vnq_v_zv__r_v___x__x_k_v_q__!


... which is even wronger. "rxdznrxf"? Please.

I'm left with three possibilities: either this code is not a straight-forward letter substitution; or it is, but the clues are cunningly misleading or jumbled in some way; or I haven't drunk enough Diet Coke yet today and my brain's not functioning.
 



Tuesday, May 24

Technology and mundanity.

When a new technology appears, it's tricky to know how it's going to turn out. When it's new and shiny and different and special, we tend to think it'll always be special. But, once we get used to having it around, a bit of us rubs off on it, and it becomes slightly human. Ringtones are a good example of this. Watch an episode of Star Trek. All their communicators make exactly the same noise. A large group of starship officers is having a chat or a fight; we hear a blip-blip; and only one of them reacts. We know now that this is total nonsense: if all the communicators had the same alert tone, every single officer would start patting their pockets and looking at each other aimlessly. When Star Trek was thought of, tiny portable comms devices did not exist, so the writers felt that the officers would pay close respectful attention to such amazing gadgets. Now we've all got at least one, and they've become a bit human, each with its own, infinitely annoying, voice.

For all his faults, this is one thing George Lucas gets dead right. One day, maybe we will have hyper-drives and droids and guns that fire streaks of hot light, and, after a brief honeymoon period, we will treat them just as Han Solo does: we'll kick them and swear at them.

All this is leading up to a thought that occurred to me the other day.

If we ever invent proper teleportation devices, I reckon I know what one of their most popular uses will be. Not transport: something that dangerous, we'll use it on inanimate objects for many years before we risk atomising ourselves. No, the first major marketing success of teleporters will be little devices that fit discretely into your underwear. Bladder full? Bowels shifting? Press a button and go for it. Nobody need ever know. All those times when you really, really need to go but just can't get to a WC — no more. Toilet breaks a thing of the past. Imagine the effect on the arts: operas could be tripled in length, with no need for intermissions. Never having to use a public toilet ever again: this would be true freedom, the likes of which humankind has never known before.

And then the practical jokes would start. Some bright spark would hack the thing, changing the factory destination settings so that they could piss on chavs remotely. A wave of utterly disgusting crime would very literally besmirch our society, until the politicos reacted with some new and wildly inappropriate law against... what would we call it? Remote defecation? Scataporting? Telefouling? Yeah, telefouling has a ring to it. Telefoulers would get five years in clink and, upon release, would be banned for life from owning a pissporter, hence creating a new black market. Would you attach an unlicensed, unguaranteed pissporter of uncertain provenance? I know I wouldn't. Doctors would learn to cope with a range of fascinating and embarassing new injuries suffered by the criminal classes. Many of them would be crippled. Such injuries would become so commonplace that anyone with a pronounced limp would be openly mocked in the streets.

And Californians would attach them to their pets.
 



The code.

OK, so this is interesting. Earlier today, this comment appeared on me blog:

Hello!

This is not spam.

You are one of twenty bloggers chosen to play the game at aequalswhat dot blogspot dot com.

Your part of the code is q=i.

Let the game begin!


Go to the address given, and you find this:

Twenty bloggers have been chosen to try and break this code, a simple letter substitution code. Fourteen have received one part of the code key, six have received two.

They will need everyone before this is all over.

As far as I can tell there are no pre-existing connections between the bloggers chosen, but I will say that no first-time blogger has been chosen. Everyone involved has had his or her blog up for at least three months.

During the game I will answer only ten "yes or no" questions. This is a total between all of you, so you'll have to decide if it's worth asking your question before you find your fellow codebloggers. I may or may not post the questions here and I also reserve the right to answer with "I cannot answer", in which case you will not be charged a question. The bloggers involved have been made privy to my email address and can reach me there for their questions. Remember, "yes or no" questions only, please.

And now, the code.

The words have been compressed to thwart any attempts to guess the answer according to the number of letters in each word, but punctuation has been left intact to serve as markers.

The game begins now. Have fun with it.

ndwwkgxzyldmgrdif,ugrabyfxwyfigrtrgkgxyww.
izyldrgabdyfvidudgjnitmgofghdtfgn,
rgbxoiryfigrfgoysdkgxtifhyusyrmvyxtd
qxidfyrmtfiww,irycdr-wisdtfyfd;fzititnzyfifit,
yayod.izgvdkgxywwdregkdmfzdegxbrdkytoxuz
ytizyldyrmfzyrskgxjgbvwykira!


What a bloody brilliant idea. And what a bugger of a code.

Later, I got an email from Eddie, the guy behind it, explaining further and also bending over backwards to apologise:

Some of the twenty have deleted my comment, others admonished my initial tactics (for which, again, I am sorry) and others still have thought this is a cool idea.


Jesus, some people. Read Eddie's original comment again. Was it really so offensive that it needed to be immediately deleted and Eddie had to be forced to apologise for it? Really? Some people are just tossers, they really are. But I digress.

This is a great idea, and this is exactly the wrong time to pick me as a contestant. I'm trying to learn a new computer language and the ins and outs of an insanely complex and utterly user-unfriendly piece of software while getting my house thoroughly decorated within two weeks when I go to a friend's wedding in another country. Code-breaking I ain't got much time for. But I don't want to contribute towards killing such a fine idea, and, frankly, feel a little honoured that I was one of the first picked in what may end up being a big new craze — or may not, but hey. So, while I don't have a lot of time to donate, I'm posting this post to make it easier for the other contestants to find me and my piece of the puzzle. A few links for the search engines' spiders might help, too, so: aequalswhat, aequalswhat, aequalswhat, aequalswhat, aequalswhat, aequalswhat, aequalswhat, aequalswhat, Code Blog, Code Blog, Code Blog, Code Blog, Code Blog, Code Blog, Code Blog, Code Blog.

This whole thing could just flop. Or it could soar. At the very least, it'll be interesting to see which.
 



Monday, May 23

Parole officers.

Saw a report on the news about these plans (that will almost certainly be abandoned) for criminals sentenced to community service to be made to wear distinctive clothing, such as the orange jumpsuits American convicts wear. I'm not always a traditionalist, but, in this case, I have to say that I'd prefer white with black arrows. But anyway. They interviewed someone from the National Association of Parole Officers, who said that it was a bad idea because, not wanting to be publicly humiliated, more criminals would fail to show up, and then they'd get sent to jail. This, he seemed to think, was a problem. I don't get it. You're convicted of a crime; you're given a sentence; you refuse to carry out that sentence; you therefore get a stiffer sentence. Isn't that how the system's supposed to work? Since when is the normal working of the criminal justice system in itself a reason not to make any changes to the criminal justice system? And, of all people, why is it a parole officer making this spurious complaint? A parole officer is supposed to work for the public by ensuring that only the convicts who obey the rules are allowed to remain free. Instead, they now seem to think they work for criminals by making sure the rules are nice and easy to obey so that convicts' time in jail may be minimised.
 



On absent-mindedness.

Tim Worstall does this great thing called the Britblog Roundup, in which he links to a selection of good blog posts from the British Isles every week. It's linked to me several times now, which is terribly flattering (thank you very much, whoever nominated me), but I am stupid: I was so flushed with happiness about being linked to that it simply did not occur to me that maybe I should link back until Tim sent me this rather terse email:

Roundup is now up at :

http://timworstall.typepad.com/timworstall
/2005/05/britblog_roundu_6.html


Links back to it are appreciated.

Tim


Like I said, terse. I read it and immediately slapped my forehead, hard, probably. Oops.

It was a fame thing, I think: having been linked to, I assumed that everyone reading this blog had come here from Tim's, so didn't need to be told about its existence. It completely slipped my mind that, of course, I am four gazoolion times more famouser than Tim, and that he needs all the linkage he can get from important bloggers like me — hence his bitterness and resentment. I would like to apologise to Tim for my uncharacteristic — not to mention unrealistic — modesty, and for any distress it may have caused him.

This latest one links to me yet again; I have now done the decent charitable thing and linked back before this whole blog etiquette thing gets really embarassing. Go and read it and follow the links in it; they're all good.
 



Thursday, May 19

Happy birthday.

I'd like to ask everyone to go over to Mr Jackson's site and wish him a belated happy birthday. Just to piss him off.
 



Sickening.

Mr Tall links to this disturbing report:

The Government today intervened directly in a right-to-life case being heard at the Court of Appeal with a message to judges that giving patients the right to demand lfe-prolonging treatment would have "very serious implications" for the National Health Service.

The General Medical Council is trying to overturn a ruling in favour of Leslie Burke, a 45-year-old former postman with a degenerative brain condition, who last year won the right to stop doctors withdrawing artificial nutrition or hydration (ANH) treatment until he dies naturally.

Philip Sales, representing Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, told the court today that if a right to ANH was established, patients would be able to demand other life-prolonging treatments.


Apparently, this is a Bad Thing. For some reason.

Mr Sales said that under current GMC guidelines to doctors, a competent patient was entitled to decide between the treatment options offered to him by his doctor.

"But the patient cannot require his doctor to offer him any treatment option which, in the doctor’s view, is not clinically appropriate ...


Fair enough. Nothing controversial or unreasonable there.

... or which cannot be offered for other reasons - having regard to the efficient allocation of resources within the NHS."


What the fuck?

The GMC can now join that long and depressing list of misleadingly named organisations. They aren't a general medical council. A general medical council would be concerned with medical issues. The GMC have decided that funding trumps medicine. They clearly now see themselves as subservient to the NHS — which is interesting, as they also assert control over private practices.

Any argument about whether the rich get better healthcare in the UK has been well and truly settled, anyway. If you go to see a private doctor, they will recommend treatments based on what's appropriate for your condition. If you go to see an NHS doctor, they will recommend treatments based on what's appropriate for your condition, unless those treatments are considered an inefficient use of NHS resources. If a treatment would save your life but would be too expensive for the government, the GMC want your doctor not even to tell you about it.

Mr Burke, of Mardale Road, Lancaster, who suffers from cerebellar ataxia, was in court in his wheelchair today listening to the arguments for overturning the ruling which he believes will save him from death by starvation, or thirst if ANH was withdrawn after he loses the ability to communicate.


Mr Burke had to go to court today and listen to his doctors arguing for the right to starve him to death as soon as he loses the ability to communicate. He had to watch the government step in to back his doctors up. This system, we are repeatedly told, is the envy of the world. Which bit are people envious of, exactly? Is it the being killed or the watching people explain how they're going to kill you first?

I wrote here about living wills, which are not currently legally binding in the UK:

There are plenty of people here in Britain who, were I comatose, would presume to speak on my behalf, despite never having known me; plenty of people who would earnestly tell my doctors that what I really wanted was death. And who knows where British law is headed?


Well, now we see where British law is heading: the General "Medical" Council are trying to pre-empt any recognition of living wills in this country by establishing a principle that patients may not make decisions about their own treatment — and, just as in the Schiavo case, the doctors are insisting that giving a patient food and water is medical treatment. Our doctors and our Government are fighting in court to assert their "right" not to give patients the treatment they ask for. If you make a living will, they want the "right" to ignore it if they think it's too expensive. Giving you food and water is, apparently, too expensive.

There is no hyperbole involved when I say that reading that report made me feel physically sick.

What has happened to our civilisation?
 



Wednesday, May 18

Galloway.

Not much point discussing the politics when it's already been done so well elsewhere, but a quick word about reporting bias.

For once, it wasn't just the BBC. The first report I saw last night was on ITV, and, jaded though I am, I was still shocked that a mainstream news report could display such blatant bias. Later, the BBC, as expected, did exactly the same, but they weren't any worse than ITN. So what was it they did? How did this bias manifest itself?

Well, they simply avoided broadcasting anything the investigating senators said.

Both channels' reports went something like this: footage of Galloway; speech from Galloway; voice-over talks about how powerfully Galloway had retalliated against the Senate; speech from Galloway; voice-over mentions question asked by unnamed senator; speechifying response from Galloway; voice-over mentions another question; speechifying response from Galloway; footage of Galloway outside the hearing, insulting still unnamed and unheard senators; quick seven-or-eight second clip of senator speaking hesitantly; more footage of Galloway.

No news report should ever look like that — regardless of the issue being reported.


Update:

I have since discovered that the senators presented evidence for around ninety minutes before Galloway said anything. What both news reports made clear was that Galloway started giving off the moment the senators opened their mouths, hardly letting them get a word in edgeways. That's misreporting.
 



Tuesday, May 17

The Lancet report, again.

Everything I said about the Lancet study also applies to this new UN report. However, as Mr Cox rightly points out, it is likely to be less inaccurate than the Lancet study, because it involves better and larger sampling.

It is important to note that the confidence intervals of the Lancet report completely encapsulate the confidence intervals of the UN report, which means the two studies are not necessarily contradictory.


Well, of course. One study says there were probably between 8,000 and 194,000 deaths; the other says there were probably between 18,000 and 29,000 deaths. There's obviously no contradiction there. Unless, of course, you were foolish enough to interpret "probably between 8,000 and 194,000" as meaning "definitely at least 100,000". Then there's a huge bloody great contradiction. Oops.

Since, as we were repeatedly told, anyone who refused to accept the 100,000 figure did so because they were pro-war, it'll be interesting to see what the anti-war types make of this new figure, coming, as it does, from the UN. Expect conspiracy theories.
 



Natural plant extracts.

Rob rightly derides this latest scare-mongering Luddite bollocks.

Of course it's junk, relying on the fact that modern chemistry can detect things in vanishingly small concentrations and then having a bunch of B-list types say how concerned they are that their bodies contain scary chemicals. Crucially they don't tell us how contaminated the tested people were, except for Sarah Beeney's 3226 nanograms of a DDT breakdown product per gram of fat. And is this level (3.2 millionths of a gram per gram of fat) remotely dangerous to her health? They don't say but I suspect it isn't. If it were dangerous they'd hardly be slow to say so.


Melinda Messenger asks:

Why should I allow my body or my children to be filled with man-made chemicals, when I don’t know what the health effects of these substances will be?


Ah, but what if those chemicals make your tits bigger? Is that OK?

Antony Worrall Thompson:

Antony’s blood sample contained 20 man made chemicals ...


... one of which was probably synthetic insulin, since Anthony's diabetic. If it weren't for some of the man-made chemicals in his bloodstream, he would be dead. Scary.

Notice that this campaign is being run by the WWF and the Co-operative Bank. Now, the Co-operative Bank are a profit-making corporation who use ethics as a selling point. "Bank with us," they say, "and we won't invest your money with people who torture kittens or pour bleach over the breakfasts of the poor." This is all well and good: what we libertarians are always saying is that the market provides opportunities for people to act ethically, so we don't need government to ban things, and here's proof of it. What I'll be interested to see, though, is how many anti-corporate anti-globalisation left-wingers warn us to ignore the results of this study on the grounds that it forms part of the marketing campaign of a multinational corporation so must be biased. I predict silence.

Anyway, this is really just a good excuse for me to rant about bloody natural bloody plant bloody extracts.

For some reason (probably idiocy), the modern public have convinced themselves that Man-Made Equals Bad and Natural Equals Good. And the cosmetics industry's advertising reflects and preys on that. "Made with natural plant extracts," they tell us. "Contains natural minerals." But they rarely tell us which extracts from which plants and which minerals they're asking us to rub into our hair or face or feet, or drink, or snort. If an advert were to say — and, to be fair, some do — "Contains an extract of the Chilean potato tree, which clinical trials have shown decreases the incidence of genital warts in toddlers," then, well, fair enough. Maybe the claim's wrong, but it is at least a claim, which can be checked. But most just tell us, "We made this out of natural stuff instead of man-made stuff, so it must be healthy. Quick! Pour it in your eyes!"

Aspirin is proven to decrease the risk of heart attacks; it also rots the stomach lining: it is both good and bad. It is man-made these days, but, before we worked out how to synthesise it, it came from the bark of the willow tree. It was both good and bad when it was natural, and it is identically both good and bad now it's man-made. Similarly, we are now able to manufacture vitamin C; we don't need fruit to get hold of it. I bet some of those celebrity's bodies contained some man-made vitamin C, yet adding that to the list of man-made chemicals probably wouldn't help the cause of manipulatively alarming the ignorant public. And what about fluoride? I bet that's on the list: health fanatics have started to get terribly upset about it lately. We put it in the water supply because it's good for you, you spoons. Being man-made has absolutely nothing to do with how dangerous a chemical is; it is merely a sign of humankind's ingenuity that we've made it.

Hemlock is a natural plant extract. So is ricin. Uranium and cyanide are natural minerals. And, if they're too clever for your average idiot to work out, you'd think even the slowest mind might realise that mustard gas is made out of mustard. It was never reported on the news that Saddam Hussein killed thousands of Kurds with a natural plant extract, was it?

If I were to make a drink with hemlock in it and advertise that it "contains natural plant extracts", people would rush out and drink it like there was no tomorrow. Which, of course, there would be.


Update:

In the comments, Andrew points out that mustard gas isn't made of mustard at all. Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn. That's just bloody typical: of all the bits of the post I could have got wrong, it would be the sentence in which I mention the slow-minded, wouldn't it? Damn.

Anyway, my main point still stands, obviously, even if I have turned out to be one of the very ignoramuses I'm insulting. I'm off to slap my wrists for a bit.
 



Too little, too late.

The Guardian have finally figured out that Socialism is inherently flawed. Of course, they don't put it quite like that.

In all cases the politicians' reflex is to take actions that they think will influence the tide of society.

But the policies of both government and opposition combined fail to approach the central truth regarding mutual respect: that there is very little any administration can usefully do. Politeness cannot be legislated. Social capital is something that is built and dissolved over generations, a rather longer term than the span of parliaments. ...

What can politicians do in the face of genuine shifts in cohesion and cooperation? In reality, very little. In fact, politicians are not always the best placed to provide answers. The underlying issues are frequently too complex and do not lend themselves to setting targets or crackdowns. ... How a government can improve the level of mutual respect in society as a whole is a task too far.


Having made the case for five paragraphs that political legislation cannot and does not improve society, they conclude by proposing the following solution to antisocial behaviour:

it is worth considering research that reveals that people become more cooperative with strangers the less pressure they are under. A government that wants its citizens to treat each other with greater respect, while also lobbying to allow businesses have employees work longer than 48 hours a week, is surely confused between cause and effect.


Legislation never works, so stop trying to block this latest piece of legislation, as it is sure to work. Great.

To compound that bizarre reasoning, The Guardian have failed to realise that antisocial behaviour is much more of a problem now than it was back when people worked sixty-hour weeks, and that one of the things that puts people under pressure is their finances, so banning their right to get extra money by doing extra work isn't going to make them more relaxed. It is endlessly annoying that someone gets paid a lot more than me to write this crap.

Natalie, of course, is endlessly wise:

There may indeed be little that politicians can do to actively legislate for civic virtue but there are enormous harms that politicians could stop doing. They could stop paying people to raise their children without virtue, social skills, chance of employment, or fathers. These "genuine shifts in cohesion and cooperation" the editorialist writes about did not arise from an inauspicious conjunction of the stars. If there is one insight (actually there are several) I owe to my time as a socialist it is that bad states of society are not unalterable. How the old-time socialists would have despised the Guardian today, as it sighs like a medieval peasant woman paying to grind her corn at the Lord's mill: "It's just the way things are. There's nothing the likes of us can do." The only problem is that the present weakness of civic society largely arises from the very measures those old-time socialists enacted with such determination.

 



Monday, May 16

Hard labour.

When we bought our house last December, the garden had been neglected and used as a rubbish dump for at least three years. Not only did it need a lot of work just to make it vaguely atlookable, but we fancied converting the back end of it into somewhere to park the car. (There's access to the back. Obviously. We didn't just want to keep an ornamental car in our back garden.) So one hell of a lot of work impended.

Now, I have a desk job, and I hate exercise. That's not to say that I hate using my muscles: I hate using them just for the sake of it. I used to cycle a lot, but can't stand to go on an exercise bike for more than a minute: if it's not moving, what's the point? Moving huge items of furniture up and down stairs is frustrating but worthwhile; lifting weights is a pointless waste of time. So, the garden was an opportunity. I resolved not to use any power tools: no chainsaw, no electric hedge-trimmer, no pneumatic drill, no cement mixer. This was one of the few times in my lifetime I was going to get any exercise.

So I've cut down a tree, uprooted a hedge, cut back another hedge and a couple of trees, built a patio and a huge pergola and a fence, lugged God only knows how many tons of earth and rubbish and old rotting carpet and sand and gravel and cement and paving slabs and cobbles and rocks from A to B and then on to at least H, mixed loads of concrete, laid another patio, and smashed up a reinforced concrete path with a pickaxe. And, this weekend, I realised that it's worked. I was, yet again, buying bags of sand and cement at Homebase, when it suddenly dawned on me that they were a lot lighter than they used to be. I could practically juggle with them. And, later, as I was swinging the pickaxe, Vic confirmed to me that my arms have actually got bigger in the last few weeks. Result. Of course, now the garden's nearly finished, I either give up programming computers to become a professional gardener or revert to my old skinny yet paunched self — and I can't be bothered learning botanical Latin.

Anyway, a thought occurred to me. (It happens.) Once upon a time, the criminal justice system used to force dangerous criminals to smash up rocks with pickaxes throughout their sentences. Hard labour. Now, I can see why that would be a worse punishment than sitting in a cell "reading" back issues of FHM for a few years, but, still... what were our forebears thinking? They took the worst, most dangerous, most amoral, most violent criminals, gathered hundreds of them together into one place where they no doubt outnumbered their guards, and then spent years building up their muscles and stamina and improving their aim, and armed them with pickaxes. To whom did this look like a good idea?
 



Saturday, May 14

This is a public information announcement.

Those of you who are into such things may be pleased to know that this blog's wondrously modern receive-each-post-by-email facility is back up and running. Click here to subscribe, if you wish. Here are the full instructions, if you're interested.

Cheers.
 



Friday, May 13

Turned on the radio.

Basement Jaxx's new single, U Don't Know Me, is the most excellently bonkers pop record since Cooler's Disco Sucks, but is likely to be far more successful. And I don't even like Basement Jaxx.

That is all.
 



The Wedding Date.

The Wedding Date is a brilliant film.

My wife wanted to see it, so along we went. I was expecting a romantic comedy, some light entertainment. Pretty Woman with the roles reversed. Instead, I got a touching romantic drama about the fact that most people are selfish callous bastards, your family included. It has a handful of funny moments, but it would be stretching it a little to call it a comedy. Excellent acting from everyone, especially Debra Messing. A wonderfully minimal script that only ever tells you just enough for you to see what's going on but doesn't hammer home points for the hard of thinking. And, unusually, it's set in England rather than Englandland.

I couldn't fault it.
 



Wednesday, May 11

Destiny.

You tell yourself you won't change into your dad, then one day you find yourself gardening like there's no tomorrow. While wearing brown cords. I am also happy that I now have a shed. Urk.

Admittedly, my brown cords are a gazillion times more stylish than my dad's. But still.
 



Tuesday, May 10

More bureaucratic waste.

Imagine my surprise. I pop over to Language Log for a dose of interesting linguistics, and instead find this tale of the EU flushing our money down the loo:

Of course, the EU sometimes seems to run according to a different system of arithmetic. According to this recent article on book digitization technology for European libraries at another French geekoid publication, 01net:

It's in this context that Infotechnique, a subsidiary of Getronics specialising in the electronic administration of documents, especially for the European Union, has just inaugurated Eurodema (for "Europe Dematerialization") at La Walck, 40 kilometers from Strasbourg. The first large contract collected by this center deals with the digitization of 32 million pages of books of certificates notarized in Alsace-Moselle over the past century. Adding up the bill: 23 million euros, divided among Gilfam, the public-interest group made up of the departments of Bas-Rhin, Haut-Rhin and Moselle.


This looks like an extraordinarily good deal to me -- for Infotechnique!

32 million pages for 23 million euros -- €0.72/page = $1.05/page. If I could get that contract, I'd be tempted to take a leave from Penn and do the job myself. I often scan articles and book chapters to put on reserve for students in my courses. Using my cheap, unautomated commodity scanner and Adobe Acrobat, I generally allow for a rate of 2 scans per minute. For most book formats, each scan is two pages, so I can do 240 pages per hour. Thus at Infotechnique's rate I could earn $252/hour, which I view as a pretty good wage. Since 32 million pages would get tiresome, even at that sort of rate, I'd be happy to split the work with some colleagues and friends.

And in fact we could do much better for ourselves. We could invest in one of those Kirtas scanners for $150K. Then all we need to do is load a new books in, one every 15 minutes or so, and the scanner would earn us up to $28,800 per day, making its cost back in less than a week. So we could easily buy several such scanners. At the rate of 25K pages per day, the whole job would take 1280 machine-days. With four machines, and (say) a dozen congenial partners to do the work in shifts -- in a nice place, with all the amenities -- we could do it in a year, and divide more than $29M among us, or almost $2.5M each.

....

Note that Google is projecting 4.5 billion pages for $150-200M -- between $.033 and $.044/page. If we call it $.04/page, that's 26 times cheaper than Infotechnique's rates.


How do I go about getting a government contract?


Update:

Someone from Infotechnique has, to my amazement, turned up and explained themselves here. I had no idea I was so controversial.

Just a comment from Infotechnique : the project is more complex that only digitisation : books of certificates notarized are handwritten and we process all scanned pages using dual data input with encryption to optimize data confidentiality. The result of this data input is stored in XML files that are used within the new electronic Property Register. Please have a look on http://www.infotechnique.com/main_en.htm to a better understanding of the scope of the project AMALFI.


And you can't say fairer than that.
 



Knowing what science is.

Rob links to the latest chapter in Kansas's long-ongoing nonsense:

The Kansas state school board has begun four days of hearings into how children in state schools are taught about the origins of life.

Religious conservatives are pressing for a change to state guidelines that would play down Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

They argue that the teaching of evolution shows a bias against religion.


Which it does, quite rightly. Let's be clear here: all those sophisticated modern Christians who claim that there's no clash between religion and science because the two address fundamentally different matters are bullshitting because they've lost the fight. Suggest to a Christian in, say, 1100 that their religion didn't even attempt to explain the origins of life, and they'd look at you as if you were mad, then probably burn you for heresy. Christianity, like most religions, certainly did explain the origins of life, until one Charles Darwin came along and blew that part of the Bible out of the water with the world's first superior explanation of genesis. Christianity has had to change — to evolve, in fact — in order to survive: hence the modern Christian insistence that the origins of life aren't anything to do with their religion and the Book of Genesis is all figurative anyway. It was that or atheism. Genesis was not written to be taken figuratively, though it may be interpreted that way. Of course, Christianity's ability to evolve is one of its great strengths. But we all know how evolution works: while some chimpanzees turned into us, the rest are still chimpanzees. No Bush jokes, please.

Some Christians have refused to surrender what they see, probably correctly, as a key part of their territory. They have remained true to the traditions of Christianity, have opted not to lie to themselves or anyone else about the threat posed by Darwinism, and are fighting it. They're wrong, but good for them anyway. For unfathomable reasons, they're particularly prevalent in Kansas. Such are the wonders of the federal system.

One of their catchphrases is "It's only a theory." And, much derided though this is by "knowledgable" folk, it is absolutely correct. Darwinism is only a theory, as are all scientific theories. It is a theory that has been repeatedly backed up by experimental evidence and has yet to be superceded by a better theory — probably because it never will be. But you never know. Newtonian mechanics was one of the greatest sets of scientific theories ever developed, and it was eventually replaced by something better. Which isn't to say that Newton was wrong, of course: he just wasn't quite right enough. But I digress. The point is that science is an ongoing process, and all scientific theories are supposed to prove their strength by outcompeting other theories, scientific or otherwise. And that brings me to Kansas's real problem:

Science organisations have boycotted the hearings in protest.


Idiots. How do they hope to win a fight they refuse to take part in? And why do they think they have the right to whinge — as they inevitably will — about losing the fight after they've forfeited it?

The BBC, unsurprisingly, don't pass up the chance to sneer at Americans:

The hearings are complete with opposing attorneys and a long witness list, although the witnesses are all allied against the teaching of evolution.


Of course all the witnesses are against evolution: the pro-evolution side have refused to turn up. So, even though there are plenty of people in Kansas who believe in evolution — possibly even a majority — who knows? — the hearings will look like a Georgian Bible class. And that, of course, is the picture of Kansas that the rest of the world sees.

National and state science organisations are boycotting the hearings saying that they are rigged against evolution.


Well, they certainly are now. How ironic that the hearings have been rigged against science by the scientists.

Instead of testifying at the hearings, science groups are holding daily news conferences.


This is preposterous. Imagine you're falsely accused of theft. Which do you think would be more effective: turning up to court and presenting evidence of your innocence, or refusing to enter the court but talking to some journalists instead? Even if you are totally innocent, that's stupidly self-defeating behaviour.

Once upon a time, really not long ago, almost everyone on the planet believed that man was created by some sort of deity. Today, hundreds of millions of people believe that man evolved from bacteria. The reason for this change is that Darwin tried to persuade other people of the validity of his theory, and that those he persuaded, in turn, tried to persuade yet more people. If Darwin and his peers had refused to argue with the proponents of intelligent design, evolution would be an obscure footnote in the history of heretical ideas. Evolution is a brilliant theory, one of history's greatest, but it can't beat the competition by itself; it needs human beings to fight its corner. These "scientists" who refuse to argue with those who disagree with them are a disgrace to science, and deserve to lose.


Update:

This is good:

Six years ago, when conservatives previously held a majority of seats on the Kansas board of education, they established guidelines encouraging schools to give equal time to the theory of linguistic creationism, which claims that English was created directly by God five hundred years ago at the start of the Great Vowel Shift so that the King James Bible could be translated into it.

 



Monday, May 9

Analogies and logic.

This is fascinating and quite appalling:

…students of international conflict at Stanford were told of a hypothetical foreign-policy crisis. A small, democratic nation was being threatened by an aggressive, totalitarian neighbor. Each student was asked to play the role of a State Department official and recommend a course of action. The descriptions of the situation were manipulated slightly. Some of the students heard versions with cues intended to make them think of the events that proceded World Was II. The president at the time, they were told, was “from New York, the same state as Franklin Roosevelt”, refugees were fleeing in boxcars, and the briefing was held in Winston Churchill Hall. Other students heard versions that might have reminded them of Vietnam. The president was “from Texas, the same state as Lyndon Johnson”, refugees were escaping in small boats, and the briefing took place in Dean Rusk Hall.

Clearly, there is little reason that the president’s home state, the refugees’ vehicles, or the name of a briefing room should influence a recommendation on foreign policy. Yet subject in the first group were more likely to apply the lesson of World War II–that aggression must be met with force–than were participants in the second group, who veered toward a hands-off policy inspired by Vietnam. Not only were the students swayed by superficial likenesses, they were not even aware that they had been swayed.

 



Sunday, May 8

If at first you don't succeed, learn when to change tack.

Well, I was right when I said that the Northern Irish result could be interesting. My MP, Sylvia Hermon, is now the only Ulster Unionist in Parliament. They used to be the biggest party in Northern Ireland, and now they're little more than a splinter group. David Trimble, their leader, has stepped down, as well he should in the light of such a massive defeat. They'd be stupid to elect anyone other than Hermon as their leader — Westminster's where the power is, and she's the only one there, as well as being the only one capable of winning an election — but I don't think they will, because, these days, they can be a bit stupid.

They were right to sign the Good Friday Agreement; they were right to agree to talk and negotiate and try to compromise with the IRA. It looked like there was a chance of genuine peace, and a chance like that should not be passed by. But, when it turned out that the IRA were taking the piss, the Ulster Unionists were too slow and weak to react appropriately. Now they've paid the price.

Change or die.
 



Saturday, May 7

A question answered.

In this post, I asked whether our parole rules had been changed, since Jonathan King had been released while claiming not to have done anything wrong. Well, the ever-helpful and argumentative Mr John Band has emailed me the answer.

According to this report, Susan May has just become the first person ever to be released while still protesting their innocence. The report is, of course, wrong: Jonathan King beat her to that honour. Mr Band says that The Metro (which isn't online) reported that she is the first lifer to be released while still protesting their innocence, which makes a lot more sense.

A spokesman for the parole board has said:

"It is unlawful for the board to refuse parole simply on the grounds of denial of the crime."


Hmm. So it's never been done before, in the entire history of parole, but the parole board expect us to believe that that's because they've been keeping people locked up illegally all these years. That seems a tad unlikely. If it were unlawful to keep these people locked up, someone would have challenged it before now.

So, in summary, it looks like I reached the correct conclusion from the wrong evidence: the parole laws have been changed, but Jonathan King's release has nothing to do with it.

He still shouldn't have been released, mind. Rarely has a parolee made it clearer that he's likely to reoffend.
 



Friday, May 6

No good outcome was likely.

Since this blog does feature the occasional bit of politics, I suppose I really ought to comment on the results.

First off, I didn't vote. I'm not apathetic. I would very much like to vote, and only wish there were some party out there I could bring myself to vote for. But there isn't.

If we had a presidential system, I would have voted for Blair, to show support for his foreign policy. But we don't, and there's no way I could have voted Labour — on principle, because they're authoritarian class-war-fighting police-state-creating thought-criminalising statists; tactically, because they're so stupid that they really think they don't need Blair and will therefore ditch him shortly; and literally, because they do not allow the residents of Northern Ireland to vote for them. (In fact, Northern Ireland is the only place on the planet where you are not allowed to join the British Labour Party. That alone is a good reason never to vote for the bastards.)

Much as Ian Duncan Smith was derided, he seemed to be taking the Tories in the right sort of direction: an emphasis on the freedom of the individual, removing state control from parts of our lives that we're perfectly capable of running for ourselves. The Tories didn't just ditch him; they ditched that entire ideology, electing Michael Howard, the man who, as Home Secretary, tried and failed to introduce the national ID card scheme that Labour are finally going to succeed with. Unsurprisingly, he's a keen admirer of the people who are finishing the work he began, and has turned the Conservative Party into a party that's almost exactly like New Labour, but not quite.

So that was the choice we were faced with: re-elect the Labour police state, or elect a new Tory police state, thus giving the Tories the message that becoming more like Labour leads to greater success, thus encouraging them to become even more like Labour. Reduced state spending and state control simply weren't on the menu. It wasn't a choice worth making, so I didn't. Labour won, as I've been predicting since 2001.

Yet there was one surprise: George Galloway beat Oona King. This one event has given me a lower opinion of the electorate than any other in my lifetime. Let's set aside all that we're-not-pro-Saddam-we're-anti-war bollocks. The people of Bethnal Green & Bow elected the pro-Saddam candidate, not to mention the pro-Soviet-Union candidate. May they get what they've voted for.

Over here, there's doubt over whether David Trimble and Mark Durkan will keep their seats. Could be interesting. Or, more likely, it could just lead to more of the same old crap.
 



Sunday, May 1

Pretty much everyone is wrong.

Finally saw an episode of this new Doctor Who that everyone thinks is so good tonight. Well, anyone who says it's any good at all is utterly, utterly wrong.

I know for a fact that Christopher Eccleston can be a good actor. Tonight, I watched him attempt to disprove that. At what point did he decide that Doctor Who was a melodrama? And what has he done to the Doctor? Are we supposed to believe that this is the same man who bluffed his way out of a fatally tight spot with a jelly baby? The Doctor used to be calm in the face of danger. All he does now is shout, panic, and sweat. Billie Piper acted him off the screen, frankly.

The script was no good, either. Is suspension of disbelief really so much to ask for? The Doctor's reaction to one disabled Dalek was the reaction of a man who could never, ever have survived a single encounter with any of their kind. And owning the Internet? Please. I like a bit of pseudo-scientific bollocks as much as the next sci-fi fan, but make it good pseudo-scientific bollocks; force me to think for more than a nanosecond about the pseudo-science before noticing that it's bollocks.

The infamous Paul McGann one-off episode is better than the shite I sat through this evening. And it weren't good.

They've done a nice job with the theme tune, though.


Update:

And another thing. What's with all the surprise at meeting a Dalek when he thought they'd all been killed? He's a Timelord. He must bump into extinct species all the time. Is that what the Doctor does when he sees a dodo or a Tasmanian wolf? "No! No! It can't be! They were all destroyed! Nooooooooo!"

Same goes for all this nonsense about being all alone in the universe now all the other Timelords are dead. Bollocks: he can meet any other Timelord, including himself, whenever he wants. That's pretty much the definition of a Timelord. Why have the BBC hired people who can't get their heads round the idea of time travel to write the script for a series about a time traveller?

Oh, and broadband being based on alien technology? Of all the amazing inventions the human race have come up with since the Fifties, that's what these writers pick as the one nicked from aliens? Tracer bullets, electronic ink, quantum ratchets, genetic modification, lightweight bullet-proof plastics, and blindness-curing cybernetic implants all on the menu, and they pick broadband? Feh.
 



Today I bought The Daily Mail.

Free DVD of A Handful Of Dust? How could I not? Fantastic.

No plans to read the bloody thing, mind.