Friday 18 December 2009

A bit of a problem.

This blog uses Haloscan commenting, which is, as far as I'm concerned, the best commenting system on the market. It doesn't support all the irritating crap that makes online bulletin boards so utterly tedious and conversations on them impossible to follow, such as putting a user's favourite quote and a big graphic they've come up with under every single comment. It doesn't force people to create accounts and log in. It simply allows people to comment, and arranges the comments in the form of a conversation. Simple and perfect, and it just works.

Or it did, anyway. Turns out Haloscan has been bought by something called JS-Kit. And, rather than support the new user base they've acquired with anything remotely resembling customer service, JS-Kit are trying to extort us into switching to their software:

Once presented with the upgrade message, Haloscan users will have 2 weeks to make a decision. You will have the following two options.
  1. Upgrade to Echo for $9.95/year – all your comment data will be transitioned over automatically

  2. Export your Haloscan comment data and turn off their service

Users need to respond within the two week period to ensure uninterrupted service.

Translation: "You've got two weeks to pay us or we'll destroy all the comments on your blog." That's two weeks over Christnas, I might add, when some people have one or two other things to be doing than trying to sort out their blog's commenting system.

And what's the new software like? Well, it insists on posting comments in reverse chronological order, because "we have found that this is the best way to present real-time data." As the commenter RT responds, "and I have found that newer comments at the bottom is the best way to carry on a conversation." I've tried posting a comment on JS-Kit's site, and I had to type the whole thing out twice because their crappy software deleted everything I'd typed when I logged in. Ah, yes, logging in: I had to do that, annoyingly. Yet, even after I'd logged in, my comment still got posted under the name "Guest". I can see why JS-Kit are resorting to extortion to try and get people to use Echo: it's a shit bit of software. Every upgrade is a downgrade.

Anyway, comments will be switched off on this blog shortly, and won't be back till I've sorted this mess out. Sorry about that. Blame the morons at JS-Kit.

Thursday 17 December 2009

Rebellion and conformity.

So, let me see if I've got this straight.

You're annoyed about "manufactured" pop music. You're sick of Simon Cowell. You don't want the Christmas Number One, yet again, to be the debut single of the X-Factor's winner. You want to make a stand against the domination of our popular culture by cynical corporate interests.

So you put your weight behind a campaign to get everyone to buy Sony record B instead of Sony record A. Yeah, stick it to the man.

I'm half-convinced that the whole campaign was Cowell's idea, in which case he'll be due a big bonus from his bosses at Sony. If it wasn't, maybe he can persuade them it was.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Denialism and scepticism.

The question being asked here by Ben Goldacre and lots of his commenters is: why do AGW sceptics believe what they do? Well, I'm an AGW sceptic, so I can at least tell them why in my own case.

First, the non-reasons. Am I in the pocket of Big Oil? I wish. I hear they pay well.

Is it because I'm against the massive societal changes "necessary" to fight AGW? Well, no, because I don't think they're necessary. It is well established by lots of evidence (most notably the brilliant experiment done on Europe from 1945 to 1990, where they tried one political system on half the continent and its antithesis on the other) that Socialism screws the environment and that wealthy people in wealthy societies tend to spend their spare cash on the luxury good of natural-environment-preservation, while poor people are too busy trying to survive to be bothered with saving the trees. My position is that, if AGW were a threat, then the solution would be more wealth-generation, probably via Capitalism. Since I'm all for wealth-generation, I'm not sceptical of AGW in order to avoid its political solution.

Is it because I want to burn lots of oil for some reason? Again, no. I hate driving and I think we should cut down on fossil-fuel consumption because it puts all sorts of nasty crap in the atmosphere which is bad for our lungs and bad for trees. I also support the development of alternative fuel sources on the simple grounds of being pro-progress. I want my solar hydrogen fusion jetpack, like they promised us when we were kids.

However, as a computer programmer, I agree with Feynman's philosophical position that you shouldn't use computer models as a source of new information and I also take the practical position that even the world's best software is buggy. I've not seen any evidence that climatologists' software is orders of magnitude less buggy than, say, Excel. Two weeks ago, I saw evidence that it's buggy as hell.

I object to the fact that the models used do not contain known climate-influencing factors — specifically, existing models cannot contain information about new discoveries. For instance, no model used before 2006 could have contained anything about this discovery — and that includes being developed by a climatologist who has seen the science and refuted it. Of course, it is entirely possible to make accurate predictions based on purely numerical models, but I don't believe that this is one of those cases, for reasons that I won't go into here & now because it'd take hours.

I object to the constant use of the word "denialist", designed as it is to imply a parallel with AIDS denialists and Holocaust denialists. We never refer to Einstein as a "quantum mechanics denialist", even though he didn't accept the theory and the theory has been proven right to as great an extent as science ever is. You're not going to persuade me of your case by insulting me, but you are going to make me wonder why you're conducting a propaganda campaign against anyone who expresses any doubts whatsoever about your views.

The leaked emails were a shock to me — not because of the sniping and back-stabbing, but because I had never realised previously that FOI requests were even necessary to get at the data. This is scientific method 101 here: release your data. Goldacre does good business going through the problems with pharmaceutical studies by analysing their raw data. But at least he can get at it to analyse it in the first place. Regardless of the shenanigans to avoid acceding to the FOI requests, the very fact that they were needed in the first place is disturbing. And the insane quote from Phil Jones, "Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it" — what the hell? Again, that's the scientific method. As Goldacre has pointed out repeatedly, scientists like it when their results get pulled to pieces, because that's what leads to stronger and stronger science. But not climatologists, apparently.

I object to the way that the science has been inseparably attached to authoritarian politics. Herman Van Rompuy said the other day that "2009 is also the first year of global governance," giving Copenhagen as an example of this. That's an unelected president of an unelected body asserting that he is going to exercise more power over me via policies that I will never be allowed to vote on. And I'm told that the only reason to object to this is because I hate the planet and want all our grandchildren to die. As far as I can see, the climatologists who say that AGW is happening and is a threat are backing the same political solutions and are keenly joining in the political fight. Well, if they want to conflate the science with the politics, they lose the right to complain when people criticise them from one point of view and not the other. They brought that on themselves. And, when they make it clear that they have political as well as scientific motives, I am entitled to question which one would be ascendant if they were to pull in different directions. It's not as if it's unusual for scientists to corrupt their science in the cause of politics.

The concensus thing. My objection to the constant use of the word "concensus" is not that the concensus itself is meaningless; obviously, it's relevant. My objection is the way that the concensus's existence is routinely presented as a scientific argument in its own right. It amounts to "You shouldn't be sceptical because none of us are, and that proves it." Yeah, go science.

I object to the apparent unfalsifiability of the argument. Every perceivedly unusual weather event is presented as evidence of AGW. As someone mentioned in the Bad Science comments, this may be more due to activists than scientists, but where are the climatologists attacking and disowning such claims just as they attack us sceptics? Conspicuously silent.

And yes, I object to the models' failure to predict the recent total lack of warming. AGW's proponents point out the difference between predicting a system's behaviour in micro and in macro, and the point is well taken. But the trouble is that there's no long history of correct predictions here. What the AGW crowd are telling us is not "Ignore our failure to predict the recent climate because we've predicted it successfully so often in the past" but rather "Ignore our failure to predict the recent climate because we will predict it successfully in the future." Hmm.

And I object to what looks suspiciously like Catastrophism, which used to be regarded as inherently unscientific by its very nature.

I am well aware that there are sceptics who are ignorant and motivated by such ridiculous things as a love of cars. But I'm not one of them, and, in my experience, most of us regard those nutters somewhat askance when they turn up.

Now, please, stop slandering me.


By the way, if anyone from Big Oil is reading this, whilst I did write it for free, I would like you to inform your overlords that I am more than happy to write much the same thing repeatedly in return for untraceable cash, barrels of oil, hot compliant women, etc. If I'm going to get accused of working for you anyway, may as well get the up side to go with it.

Thursday 3 December 2009

On insufficient cynicism.

As some of you may know, my motto is "The only problem with being cynical is being right."

Well, in light of recent developments, I'd like to say that I wrote this three-and-a-half years ago:

As you almost certainly know, lots of scientists these days — especially climatologists — draw conclusions about the real world from computer models. I have therefore compiled this handy list. It's a list of the questions you need to ask any scientist who has used a computer model to reach a conclusion — and I'm not just picking on the climate-change crowd here; they may be the most prominent in the news, but there are lots of other guilty parties out there in all sorts of scientific fields. If a scientist doesn't give confident and reasonable answers to these questions, take their conclusions with a handful of salt.

I set out some of the basic problems of programming and debugging as part of a team, in terms designed to make it clear to laymen that computer models may not always be all that reliable. But I admit that I always assumed that the models used by scientists were basically quite well built yet prone to the same inherent problems as every other bit of programming. It simply never occurred to me that prominent climatologists might be unable to replicate their own models' results or would be building models based on data that they had lost. I was just writing about the long-known problem of the blurring of lines between using computer models to examine and test data and using them to generate information. It didn't occur to me that our lords & masters might be considering destroying the global economy on the say-so of a bunch of "scientists" who'd lost sight of the scientific method.

Had I been more cynical, I'd've been more right. That'll learn me.

Saturday 28 November 2009

The best charity ever.

Anyone who's heard a thing or two about Hernando de Soto might recognise some of his ideas in Kiva:

Kiva's mission is to connect people through lending for the sake of alleviating poverty.

Kiva is the world's first person-to-person micro-lending website, empowering individuals to lend to unique entrepreneurs around the globe.

The people you see on Kiva's site are real individuals. When you browse entrepreneurs' profiles on Kiva, choose someone to lend to, and then make a loan, you are helping a real person make great strides towards economic independence and improve life for themselves, their family, and their community. Throughout the course of the loan (usually 6-12 months), you can receive email journal updates and track repayments. Then, when you get your loan money back, you can relend to someone else.

What Kiva are doing is making it easy for people in the Developing World to borrow money off us rich bastards in the Developed World, while also making it easy for those of us who aren't actually rich at all to lend small, affordable amounts of money and still do some good. Nothing about this encourages dependency. Nothing about it skews the incentives of poor nations' governments. And we the donors can afford to give far more this way, because we can actually get back nearly all of what we put in.

You can probably do more good lending money via Kiva than you can giving it to other charities. Let's just hope the idea catches on.

Monday 19 October 2009

Form over content.

Been saying this for years. This is the root of the problem with political correctness:

If you say, "Chairman Mao? Wasn't he the wacko who offed 70 million Chinks?", you'll be hounded from public life for saying the word "Chinks". But, if you commend the murderer of those 70 million as a role model in almost any schoolroom in the country from kindergarten to the Ivy League, it's so entirely routine that only a crazy like Glenn Beck would be boorish enough to point it out.


I think I like John Mayer now.

Don't really know a damn thing about him, but you've got to love his answer to this:

What do you think about health care? Would you take the public option?

Have you ever heard me play guitar? I'm really fucking good. You know what I'm bad at? Answering questions about public health care.


Out of practice.

Should have blogged about this sooner, but I was too busy trying to catch up on all the damn sleep it lost me. I was caught up in this crap:

A SECURITY alert in Newry has caused serious traffic disruption.
Army technical officers worked throughout Wednesday examining a vehicle parked near the city's courthouse.

The alert was raised late on Tuesday evening.

Yeah, the alert was raised late on Tuesday evening and my work was within the cordoned-off zone, so we had to leave as soon as the police realised we were in the building. Not sure why, as they weren't evacuating any of the residential buildings in the area. No public transport at that time of night — a bit after midnight — and our cars were parked inside the cordon too, so we weren't allowed near them. Needless to say, the police do nothing to help you when you're caught up in a situation like that. Break a few shop windows and they'll put you in a nice warm cell for the night and provide you with food, but have the temerity to be a law-abiding citizen and you can go and fuck yourself as far as they're concerned.

Luckily, one of my colleagues was actually staying in Newry and so we didn't have to spend the entire night aimlessly wandering the freezing-cold streets and were able to sleep fitfully on sofas in a freezing-cold living room instead. I occasionally called the police to find out if the cordon had been lifted. They seemed to find these calls annoying, and, after a couple of them, told me that it would definitely be staying till nine at the earliest.

Which was odd. Bomb threats were a regular occurrence everywhere in Northern Ireland a few years ago, and they generally took a couple of hours for the security forces to clear. Yet this one was taking a bare minimum of, what, eleven hours? What the Hell?

And it ended up taking even longer. I eventually had to give up and get the bus and train home, conveniently leaving my car in bloody Newry. The cordon was still up well into Wednesday afternoon. And it wasn't even a real bomb.

The news reports aren't making this clear at all, but, talking to the police at the time and seeing what was going on, what appears to have happened is that the bomb squad didn't even come to look at the bomb until their normal working day started around nine. Not worth getting them out of bed for.

I certainly hope that that's what happened, as at least that would merely imply severe managerial stupidity. The alternative is that British Army bomb disposal experts take nearly twenty hours to make safe a fake bomb containing no explosives. I hope our guys in Iraq are managing to move a bit faster than that.

Anyway, it certainly sent a clear message to the terrorists: You can cripple a major town for an entire day with a car and a phonecall.

So we can probably expect this to become a regular thing. Great.

The bloody BBC, again.

There's that annoying habit news organisations have got into of putting quotes in headlines. It's basically lying, but if you put the lie in quotes you get to blame it on somebody else.

But the BBC have come up with a new advance on that. Here's the headline:

Anger at US mixed marriage 'ban'

A "ban", eh? Blimey. That sounds pretty bad.

Except that there then follows a report in which the word "ban" does not appear. Not once. The only place it appears is in that headline. Which rather implies that, for all that the word's in quotes, it's not a quote. Surely, if it were, the BBC would be providing the quote. I mean, this is basic journalism: when you publish a quote, you attribute it. Otherwise, you could just be writing any old crap, right?

Oh, hang on: they are. The reason the word "ban" doesn't appear anywhere in the report is that what it's describing is not in any way a ban. It's a personal decision by one person and a complaint about his decision from someone else.

A white US justice of the peace has been criticised for refusing to issue marriage licences to mixed-race couples.

Keith Bardwell, of Tangipahoa Parish in Louisiana, denied racism but said mixed-race children were not readily accepted by their parents' communities.

A couple he refused to marry are considering filing a complaint about him to the US Justice Department.

Oh deary me. A justice of the peace is refusing to marry this couple. That's awful. What on Earth will they do?

Ms Humphrey, who is white, said that when she phoned Mr Bardwell on 6 October to discuss getting a marriage licence signed his wife told her about his stance.

Mrs Bardwell recommended that the couple see another justice of the peace, who did agree to marry them.


That little detail's down in paragraph 12, by the way, where the BBC can be pretty bloody sure it'll be missed.

I can't even see why the BBC are reporting this story, to be honest. I mean, there's a lot of racism in the world, most of it far worse than this. The entire story boils down to "Man expresses fairly racist sentiment, couple experience slight inconvenience arranging marriage." Would the BBC bother with this story if it came out of Poland or France or Italy? I doubt it. But, ah, America... it gives them the perfect opportunity to continue their decades-long propaganda war by blatantly lying in a headline.

I absolutely guarantee that I will meet people over the next few years who will tell me earnestly that interracial marriage is actually illegal in some parts of the US.

Thursday 15 October 2009

What the hell happened to the Left?

I know this question's been asked a lot, but, really. I used to be able to disagree with them about economic policy while agreeing on many of their pet causes, such as, for instance, the right of women not to be beaten to a pulp by their husbands. How old hat is that? Turns out, in the latest rules of Victimhood Poker, mentally ill trumps female. Like, really, really trumps it. Trumps it so hard it's not going to bloody try that again, the jumped-up bitch. Seriously:

The couple had been married 15 years when [David] Dawson, the former captain of the Canadian Triathlon Team, viciously attacked his wife, seemingly out of the blue.

According to the victim, she was punched in the face several times and struck in the face with a barbell.

At one point, she lost consciousness after Dawson began choking her and, when she came to, found that her hands had been tied behind her back.

Despite repeated pleadings to stop the assault, Judith Dawson said her husband continued the violence, first putting a pillow over her face, then picking her up and carrying her to the kitchen where he once again tried to choke her to a point where, she told the court, she feared for her life.

"I begged and begged him to stop hurting me," Judith Dawson wrote in a victim-impact statement submitted prior to sentencing.

The assault ended when the victim managed to free her hands and escape to a neighbour's house.

Lovely guy, you might be thinking. However, it turns out he's even lovelier than that, because he's a victim too.

The court learned that David Dawson was suffering from mental illness at the time of the attack, diagnosed by one doctor as agitated depression and narcissistic personality disorder and by another as a "mixed personality disorder characterized by an excessive preoccupation with detail."

Poor wee lamb.

Since the assault, Dawson has taken responsibility for the assault, expressing "profound remorse, which seems sincere," according to a psychiatrist who interviewed him earlier this year.

"He appears to be committed to maintaining his current recovery," the psychiatrist further noted.

In pronouncing sentence in the matter, Judge De Walle said Dawson's continued success would be better served by imposing a lengthy order of supervision, rather than jail time.

You'd hope a judge might know what a sentence is for. Apparently not. Judge De Walle thinks that we send violent criminals to jail in order to help them, and that we therefore shouldn't do it if it looks like it might not help them. Judge De Walle knows less about criminal justice than every five-year-old in the world.

I particularly like this detail:

However, Dawson was found fit to stand trial.

In other words, whether he was fit to stand trial was up for discussion in the first place. In other words, he tried to use this convenient mental illness to avoid the prosecution entirely — and in this he failed. The psychiatrists who looked at him may have decided that, yes, he was a bit mentally ill, but they also decided that, no, not to the extent of not being responsible for his actions he wasn't. He was officially deemed to be criminally responsible.

And the judge has still let him off with a slap on the wrist.

I know what some of you may be thinking. Why am I using this to criticise the Left? Who's to say Judge De Walle is a lefty? And the answer is that a mysogynist old socially conservative judge might let a guy off lightly for beating his wife because of some misguided belief that what happens inside a marriage is never the state's business no matter what, but only a lefty would let him off because jail is "counterproductive" to the poor convict's progress at overcoming his difficulties. Those old sexist judges, who used to make some truly appalling decisions (and, really, are there any of them left? Is that still happening?), at least noticed the victim. Sure, they reckoned the beating wasn't that bad and she should put up with it, but they acknowledged her existence. To the modern "progressive" mind, she's just getting in the way at the trial. A criminal trial serves no purpose other than to rehabilitate the offender. None. The idea that a sentence might be a form of punishment is anathema to these bastards.

These days, if you or a friend of yours is violently attacked by a mysogynist bastard, you might be better avoiding the police and just going straight to Jamie Foxx:

"If it had been my daughter who was barely a teenager — my daughter is 15 — Roman Polanski would be missing... period. It wouldn't even get to the court case."

Damn straight.

You may know them by their friends.

A message for most of Hollywood:

When your actions and words provide perfect evidence for the deluded hateful racist bastards who think that the media is run by the International Jewish Conspiracy, it's a good bet that you're doing something wrong.

As an aside, I must say that, having learnt Whoopie Goldberg's views on raping and abusing teenagers, I'm never going to be able to watch The Colour Purple again.

Thursday 1 October 2009

A rational debate.

As you probably already know, Natalie Morton dropped dead within hours of being given the new HPV vaccine.

A vaccine to protect against cervical cancer was unlikely to have caused the death of the schoolgirl Natalie Morton, health officials said last night.

Preliminary results from a post-mortem examination suggest that the 14-year-old had a "serious underlying medical condition".

Understandably, the event was a bit worrying for many parents. Which has, predictably, prompted hundreds of self-congratulatory rationalists to start insulting those parents.

Gary links approvingly (for some reason) to Malcolm Coles's object lesson in how not to see the wood for the trees:

Let's be clear. The only reason parents are worried, boycotting the vaccine, and demanding suspensions of the vaccination program is because the media whipped up a storm with no evidence whatsoever.

Look, it doesn't do anyone any favours to misrepresent your opponents in a political debate. It just lowers the level of discourse across the board.

Some people are worried about the side effects of the vaccine — which is natural and normal when a girl drops dead shortly after taking it. It's all very well to say that the authorities have looked into it and discovered that she was actually killed by an unrelated underlying medical condition, but people in the UK don't need particularly impressive memories to remember being assured by respected scientists that thalidomide was safe and that BSE couldn't transfer to humans and that any mother with more than one child dead from SIDS was a murderer. That's not to say that if the authorities are wrong once they're wrong every time, but that the self-important clueless whining of scientists that "We are scientists and we do science and so everyone should trust us and anyone who disagrees with us is being irrational" is ignorant and tiresome. Government scientists have a good long history of being wrong in order to promote their pet projects, being wrong in order to support government policy, and just plain being wrong.

Furthermore, I'm sure a lot of people are asking themselves the entirely reasonable and rational questions "Would this unrelated underlying medical condition have caused the girl to drop dead that day anyway, or might she have survived for years with it, maybe got it diagnosed eventually, had it treated successfully? Did the vaccine exacerbate matters?" and "Does my daughter have this medical condition?" In fact, I notice Malcolm Coles is himself asking these questions:

If it's shown that the vaccine did trigger an underlying health issue, then public health officials and parents (like me) will be in the position of having to balance risks.

Yet he insists that it is grossly irresponsible for newspapers to publish the story that causes people to ask these reasonable questions.

Before this health scare, a lot of people made what I think is also an entirely reasonable point. We have discovered that promiscuity can be seriously bad for women's health, to the extent of killing them. We could therefore strongly advise girls not to be promiscuous. But this idea is such anathema to the libertine Baby-boomers running our country that to do so is regarded as impossible. So we'll provide a vaccine instead. It's not the vaccine that's the problem per se; it's the reasoning behind the declared importance of the vaccination program. And it's easy to see this by noticing that there was a period during which scientists and the Government were aware of the risk from the cancer but had yet to develop a vaccine, and during that period there was not a widespread program of discouraging promiscuity. They clearly don't view the vaccine as merely the better or the more effective option; they view it as the only option. Heaven forbid that parents or teachers might be encouraged to tell their daughters that sleeping around at the age of fourteen isn't a great idea.

As for this popular assertion that it's stupid to suggest that giving someone a vaccine against a fatal STD might encourage them to be more promiscuous — so stupid that only the Christian Right would believe such a thing — I observe that the advent of AIDS had a huge effect on the behaviour of gay men, and it seems highly unlikely that the invention of an HIV vaccine wouldn't have roughly the opposite effect.

And, of course, there are some crazy stupid fanatical anti-vaccine people.

But here's the thing. A lot of the people rationally and sanely worried by this news have the same contempt for the crazy anti-vaccine crowd as the rest of us. To lump them all in together is insulting, and insulting people neither reassures or persuades them. Coles even links to a good example — surely one of the few sane things ever to have appeared in The Guardian's Comment Is Free — and says "I have to ask, however, what the hell this is." It's sane, calm, reasonable common sense, Malcolm. Try not to let it give you histrionics.

Coles is under the false impression that it's the job of newspapers to print what they're damn well told and not to publish anything without rock-solid evidence. Sorry, but no. Every instance in history of journalists uncovering a true story that contradicts the official story has involved publishing stuff that they have been reliably and authoritatively told is false. The price for their being allowed to do that when they're right is that they also be allowed to do that when they're wrong. The alternative is that they do neither.

And that's not even what they've done here. What they've done is to accurately report on the true fact that a girl dropped dead after being given the vaccine, and to reasonably ask whether the two events be related. The relevant authorities and scientists have also asked that same question, which is how they've been able to answer it. Coles has yet to explain why it is that reporting the story is scaremongering but putting the entire batch of vaccine into quarantine isn't.

And then there's the kind of obvious point that there is middle ground between having the vaccine right now and never having the vaccine at all ever: my guess is that a lot of parents decided to withdraw consent for their daughters to be vaccinated while this matter was investigated and will allow their daughters to be vaccinated once they're sure it's safe. This is sensible, reasonable behaviour. It's what I'd do. The vaccination program is aimed at twelve- and thirteen-year-olds, and it is to prevent a disease caused by promiscuity. Exactly how urgent does Malcolm Coles think it is?

Don't hesitate — don't contribute to encouraging others hesitating. Not having this vaccine puts your daughter's life at risk.

Got that? Just hesitating will kill your daughter. And this is from a man complaining about others scaremongering. Will waiting a few weeks or months really be the lethal disaster he claims?

For the record, I support the vaccination program. I agree that it's bad that our rulers will push a national mass vaccination program but would never consider promoting abstinence or fidelity in order to achieve the same health results, but that, for me, is a side issue: I still support all safe vaccination programs, and have written before that this is one of those areas that Libertarians tend to get wrong. No, it's not a matter of personal choice about whether to be immunised, because vaccination works not be immunising individuals but by immunising populations. We should be aiming to drive every disease to extinction, no matter how each disease happens to be transmitted.

But the fact that I support the vaccination program doesn't mean that everyone who opposes it is a moron. And calling them morons and misrepresenting their entirely rational views simply makes you look like a condescending bully.

Oh, and anyone who supports the NHS is a Communist who wants to kill you.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

You can tell.

Genuine conversation from the depths of East Anglia, reported to me first-hand:

"CID are here."

"How can you tell? Aren't they plain-clothes?"

"Well, yes, but they've turned up in polished cars with clean shoes and short hair."

Friday 11 September 2009

On preparedness.

Mac-sys are the only Apple-authorised Apple repair people in Northern Ireland, apparently. They're probably really good, but, well...

iPhone is coming

Mac-Sys Ltd are the only Apple ASP in the province and we are well-prepared for the imminent introduction of the iPhone in the UK and Europe.

Right on the front-page of their site. It may say "well-prepared", but it doesn't really imply it, does it?

(I've come across thier site because my Macbook is begubbered. Fine for typing this here blog post, but can't handle audio without collapsing in a fit of coughing. How incredibly irritating.)


Yeah, I know, I've not blogged in ages. If you want more updates, pay me.


The release of Apple's Snow Leopard got me thinking... All the versions of OSX (except maybe not the first release, if I recall correctly) have been named after big cats: Panther, Tiger, Leopard, Snow Leopard... wasn't there a Jaguar at one point? I forget. Anyway, what are they going to switch to when they finally release OS11? Dogs? Ducks? Insects? Wasp, Hornet, Mantis could work. Weevil, not so much. Reptiles? Reptiles have got to be in the running, 'cause then they get to use Komodo, which is a frankly shit-hot name for an OS. Fish? Probably not ducks.

My money — all none of it — is on birds of prey. Eagle, Kestrel, Harrier, Sparrowhawk, Mallard.

Saturday 11 July 2009

More shoddy BBC reporting.

I'm beginning to get more annoyed by the BBC's appalling slapdash sub-tabloid journalism than I am by their bias.

The latest example is their reporting on the Connectivity story. Here's the opening paragraph, which, in proper journalism, is supposed to quickly summarise the story:

A company will begin offering a directory service from next week that allows people to find the mobile phone numbers of people they don't know.

Now, that immediately set alarm-bells ringing with me, because I'd heard Shona Foster explain the service in an interview. And, indeed, here's the key detail, down in paragraph twenty-three:

In neither case is the mobile phone number given over to the person making the request.

Well, that just makes paragraph one an out-and-out lie, now, doesn't it?

Tuesday 7 July 2009

Lies, damn lies, and their place in a scientific debate.

By now, you've probably come across some of the fuss regarding Simon Singh's being sued by the British Chiropractic Association.

I like Simon Singh. And though I regularly get chiropractic treatment for my spine and joints because it works whilst conventional medicine can't even be bothered, that doesn't mean that I'm not at least as suspicious of the BCA as I am of the BMA. Organisations regularly do silly things, because they're run by the sort of people who run organisations. So, when I first read about this case, I suspected that the BCA were abusing the system. And then I went and found the offending paragraph, and decided that no, they're not. They have a case here.

Here's the paragraph that's landed him in trouble:

The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organization is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.

The scientific community (whatever that is) are up in arms over this. There's been much complaining that Justice Eady, who has made the preliminary decision that Singh's words could indeed mean what the BCA say they mean, has misinterpreted the word "bogus". But Eady didn't actually rest his decision on the one word "bogus" as strongly as some of his detractors claim. Here are the relevant paragraphs of his decision:

12. What the article conveys is that the BCA itself makes claims to the public as to the efficacy of chiropractic treatment for certain ailments even though there is not a jot of evidence to support those claims. That in itself would be an irresponsible way to behave and it is an allegation that is plainly defamatory of anyone identifiable as the culprit. In this case these claims are expressly attributed to the claimant. It goes further. It is said that despite its outward appearance of respectability, it is happy to promote bogus treatments. Everyone knows what bogus treatments are. They are not merely treatments which have proved less effective than they were at first thought to be, or which have been shown by the subsequent acquisition of more detailed scientific knowledge to be ineffective. Bogus treatments equate to quack remedies; that is to say they are dishonestly presented to a trusting and, in some respects perhaps, vulnerable public as having proven efficacy in the treatment of certain conditions or illnesses, when it is known that there is nothing to support such claims.

13. It is alleged that the claimant promotes the bogus treatments "happily". What that means is not that they do it naively or innocently believing in their efficacy, but rather that they are quite content and, so to speak, with their eyes open to present what are known to be bogus treatments as useful and effective. That is in my judgment the plainest allegation of dishonesty and indeed it accuses them of thoroughly disreputable conduct.

It seems clear to me that what Eady is looking at is the whole sentence. And, frankly, though I think he's wrong about the word "bogus" in general, I think he's right about that sentence. For me, what does it is following "This organization is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession" with "and yet ...". That "yet" means that what follows is in opposition to what precedes it. It really can't mean anything other than "If they were respectable people, they wouldn't be doing this." And that is what gives the rest of the sentence the context that makes Eady right about the words "bogus" and "happily".

Even Ben Goldacre concedes:

technically there is a reading of simon’s piece that suggests he thinks the BCA deliberately and knowingly peddle quackery.

In fact, I'm beginning to think that Singh simply isn't a very good writer:

I would have to offer an apology for an article that I still think is reasonable and important according to its intended and obvious meaning.

One might think that, by this point in the proceedings, Singh might have realised that his intended meaning is not as obvious as all that. It is clearly, by definition, debatable.

And there's an interesting point here from a Metafilter commenter called Mutant:

The Woolf reforms of 1999 set forth a structure of early discussion and exchange of information to determine the validity of complaints. This framework and the obligations / responsibilities of all parties is known as the "pre action protocol on defamation proceedings".

Litigation is discouraged and both settlement out of court - "an offer of amends" in response to a "letter of demand" - as well as mediation strongly suggested. Suing now without following this protocol every step of the way will negatively bias the judge and will reflect in his or her instructions to the jury (all libel / slander cases in the UK are heard by a jury).

In short, it will harm the BCA's case not to have made reasonable offers to Singh to settle this out of court. But he has repeatedly publicly stated that he refuses to apologise for the piece.

Now, a lot of people want to keep libel laws out of science, and with good reason. There certainly have been cases, well documented by Ben Goldacre, where organisations have attempted to use libel laws — especially English libel laws, which are crap — to defend their dubious scientific claims by stifling those who point out that they're wrong. But this is not one of those cases. The BCA have not sued Singh for what he said about the evidence for chiropractic; they've sued him for what he said about the personal character of the chiropractors in the BCA.

Which is probably why The Guardian's initial offer to placate them didn't work: it was based on completey the wrong premise:

Initially The Guardian newspaper tried its best to settle the matter out of court by making what seemed to be a very generous offer. There was an opportunity for the BCA to write a 500 word response to my article to be published in The Guardian, allowing the BCA to present its evidence. There was also the offer of a clarification in the "Corrections and Clarifications" column, which would have pointed out: "The British Chiropractic have told us they have substantial evidence supporting the claim they make on their website that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying. (Beware the spinal trap, page 26, April 19)."

It seems clear now that what they needed to be offering was to say in no uncertain terms that members of the BCA are not fraudsters. But it just didn't occur to them, because they were fixated on the idea that this is all about scientific evidence. It's not. Such an offer would not necessarily have been accepted, of course, but it would at least have had a better chance. The BCA have said that they didn't just leap into court over this, but tried to resolve the matter more informally first; they have been forced, they say, to resort to libel proceedings because anything less was being ignored. And, reading Singh's defence today, this is hardly surprising, as he still doesn't seem to understand how it is that he has actually pissed the BCA off.

So yes, by all means, please, someone reform British libel law: it badly needs it. The reforms should make scientific claims a no-go area for libel and should make libel suits considerably less attractive for those who are wrong and know they're wrong but wish to shut their critics up. They should also, as Singh correctly points out, cost a damn sight less money to the defense. But what reform shouldn't do is make this sort of case impossible. When someone very publicly accuses you of fraud or dishonesty, you should be able to sue them — no matter what line of work they're in. It would be a terrible idea to simply make "But I'm a scientist!" a valid defense.

And the other reason that such cases shouldn't be put out of the reach of libel law is that a bunch of concerned scientists should get together and sue Jeni Barnett's arse clean off. Because she didn't just say that MMR vaccine is unnecessary. She didn't just say that it can cause horrible side-effects. She said that it's a conspiracy. She said that it's all about profit. She suggested that information about MMR has been suppressed by the powers that be. Which rather implies that doctors and scientists know that MMR is bad for children but push it on them anyway, for the money. Barnett basically accused large numbers of people of being, essentially, monstrous — and she presented this accusation to millions of listeners. If I were a doctor who'd given the jab to a few hundred kids, I'd rather resent the implication that I'm deliberately harming them for money. If you're in the doctoring line of work, that sort of accusation could be pretty bad for your career. I firmly believe that a few dozen such doctors should pool some money, retain a lawyer, force Barnett to issue a full public apology for such a horrendous slur, and take some of her money off her.

And then move on to the next malicious idiot.

Scientists as a group are wrong about this. They think that all these debates are scientific, which is why they tend to lose — we've got a measles epidemic and some dead kids now to show just how badly scientists lost the MMR fight. Yes, keep science out of the libel courts: it's not the way to present evidence. But recognise that not every claim made about science is a scientific claim. A lot of these claims are simply personal attacks on the character of scientists, and, by letting such claims stand, scientists do plenty to encourage an environment in which such attacks are popular and acceptable.

This is not about science. It's about character. Your character is important; it's what makes the difference between good and bad people. And, if the public think you're bad people, they won't follow your advice. This is getting even more serious now: the anti-vaccine crowd's influence has moved on to swine flu: people are going to "swine-flu parties" to deliberately spread it around, making it more prevalent, making it more virulent, killing people. Letting maniacs portray scientists as evil money-grubbing sadistic experimenters-on-children with impunity has had bad consequences.

Your character is important and incredibly valuable. So defend it.

Saturday 4 July 2009



That bloody woman with her bloody kids, who only ever got votes because of her looks anyway, has finally been hounded out of politics by the smear campaign and the personal attacks on her children and the attempt to bankrupt her via frivolous legal complaints. Took her long enough to get the hint. Look, dear, politics isn't for jumped-up wombs like you. Stay in the kitchen. Have some more kids. Don't bother us again with your so-called "ideas". All that thinking was clearly overheating your brain.

At least, that's what all the feminists are saying.

Sunday 28 June 2009


A milestone, this. I'm going to disagree with Natalie The Wise, because she's made the usual Libertarian case for why the state shouldn't stop people wearing burqas:

If you want to keep your freedom to drink what you please on the public street then fight for the freedom to wear what you please on the public street.

But what about public drunkeness, then, and the fear and misery of those whose nights are blighted by drunks fighting at their windows and pissing in their gardens? And what about the cloth-entombed women, projecting an image of both slavery and Islamic aggression, who may or may not have chosen to wear the black bag?

My answer is substantially the same to both social problems: as a society we have chosen to deny ourselves the very tools of private social action (no, that is not a contradiction in terms) that could make things better.

For decades we have denied ourselves disapproval. For decades we have denied ourselves property rights. For decades we have denied ourselves the right to free association, which necessarily includes the right not to associate.

These tools are the ones we have the right to use. They are also the right tools for the job. They, unlike the tools of coercion, will not turn in our hands and cut us.

The burqa is not a matter of giving Muslim women the same clothing freedoms as the rest of us; it is a matter of making them a specific exception to various laws and regulations which already exist. There are lots of things I am not allowed to do when wearing a mask, and quite rightly, in my opinion: going through airport security, loitering in a bank, walking into a school playground. This is Northern Ireland. Imagine what would happen if I were to walk into a school wearing a balaclava. Anyone going to protect my clothing "rights"? I bloody hope not. Yet a polite request to a Muslim woman to remove her mask while on the premises would land the headteacher in court. She doesn't have equal rights; she has extra ones.

And sure, yes, as I've said before, we need more public disapproval. The word "judgmental" should not be derogatory. But, for that to work, you need to be dealing within a civilised framework. When it comes to the burqa, we are dealing with — in some cases — and, for obvious reasons, we have no way of knowing until it's too late which cases they are — people who will hurt us, even cut us dead in the street. We're not discussing a civilised debate here.

In general, I would say that strong private institutions are a bulwark against the type of creeping Islamification - or capture by other minority groups - that concern many of the commenters to this thread ... Contrast that with the position of state institutions, which includes state laws. These are a much more realistic target for capture by determined minorities. If, say 3% of the population feel really strongly about some issue and 97% are apathetic it is actually quite a realistic proposition for the 3% to get laws passed to steer things their way. Much easier than out-purchasing the other 97%, certainly.

A good point well made, but it's already happened via another method: violence. I don't think anyone really knows what proportion of Muslims in Britain are extremist Islamists willing to perpetrate sometimes lethal violence against infidels and apostates, but it doesn't need to be large: just a small handful of violent lunatics is enough to unleash enough violence to create enough news stories to change all our behaviour. If I'm running a shop and a group of people walk in all wearing burqas and I don't like it, sure, I could express my disapproval. But, of course, I'm going to be asking myself: Just how much do I disapprove? Enough to get a beating? Enough to risk an angry mob storming my shop? Enough to be killed? Enough to risk my family? And chances are I'll hold my tongue — even if the people who've entered my shop are in fact comepletely reasonable sane people who don't even want to wear bloody burqas and whose reaction, had I spoken up, would actually have just been to have a nice chat about it. Most people aren't likely to risk finding that out.

So a small group have changed the behaviour of the majority to accommodate their extremism. And this is exactly the sort of situation that we have a state with a police force for. We need a law to be passed — not necessarily a burqa ban, but some sort of law — in order to get back to the state we should be in: the state where civilised discussion is possible.

The commenter Ian B asks:

How does one define when citizens can cover their faces? Below a certain temperature? When it's snowing? It's not as if you can really define what a burka is.

Those who wear the burqa, even if they actually want to, don't just feel like wearing it on the street quite a lot. They insist on wearing it at all times, often to the extent of taking action against anyone who asks to see their face. When the rest of us cover our faces for whatever reason, the same is not true.

So don't define what a burqa is. Just apply the same rule to everyone: sure, you can hide your face because of the cold or because you're disfigured or even because of your religion, on the condition that you reveal your face when asked. And allow anyone who dislikes face-hiding to refuse entry. Banks can refuse entry to motorcyclists who refuse to remove their helmets. Let them refuse entry to anyone else, whetever their religion, who refuses to remove any kind of mask. At the moment, they can't.

That's one solution, but I'd go a bit further. There are a number of laws which are simply codifications of our society's social norms and conventions. This particular one has never been codified up till now because it hasn't been needed, but wearing a mask in public certainly has been considered for hundreds of years in Britain to be the behaviour of criminals. The big change here is not the proposal to ban the burqa: that'll just be affirming the long-established norms. The big change happened a few years ago, and was the decision to protect the "right" of certain people to wear masks at all times. There is no such right in Britain.

I am reminded of the seatbelt law. I know most libertarians will vigorously defend their "right" to drive without a seatbelt. Personally, I don't think anyone has a right to leap out in front of moving traffic, and I don't accept "But I've just been hurled through my own windscreen" as an excuse. But that's not the point. As anyone who's tried to put on a seatbelt as a passenger in a country without this law will know, the problem isn't one of freedom of choice. The problem is drivers who refuse to allow their passengers to wear seatbelts, because they consider it an insult to their driving skills or masculinity or penis size or whatever. The important effect of the seatbelt law was to allow people who had always wanted to wear seatbelts to do so when being given lifts by wankers. In a typical family car, there's one driver and three passengers, so the number of people whose freedom was increased is greater than the number whose freedom was decreased. Imperfect, sure, but that's humanity for you.

Similarly, the problem with the burqa is coercion. We all know it. Ban masks in public, and all those women being coerced are given freedom without being given the blame for asking for freedom. Great. Meanwhile, a tiny number of people are prevented from doing something that has never ever been socially accepted in this country and are denied a right that they never had. Boo hoo. More people will gain freedom than will lose it.

Saturday 27 June 2009


This article about upcoming car technology is very interesting and well worth reading, but the writer, Tom Evans, displays a huge glaring splash of ignorance the moment he veers away from the topic of cars:

Another very clever aspect is the harnessing of the 'wisdom of the crowd' -- how the actions of large numbers of people can help others make decisions -- a way of thinking that has grown up in the internet age. Examples abound, with perhaps one of the best examples being's 'people who bought this book also bought that one'.

No, this way of thinking didn't grow up in the Internet age. It's been around, and very successful, for thousands of years. And that Amazon example is not a good one, really. There are far better examples from the Net, but why bother with any of them when by far the best example is also the oldest and therefore the one people will be most familiar with: pricing.

Honestly, some people.

What is race, anyway?

Well, it ain't this:

The school, in Brent, northwest London, rejected the 12-year-old child because his mother converted to Judaism at a Progressive rather than Orthodox synagogue. M’s father is Jewish, but custom dictates that the faith line passes through the mother.

The judges said that “the requirement that if a pupil is to qualify for admission his mother must be Jewish, whether by descent or by conversion, is a test of ethnicity which contravenes the Race Relations Act”.

In. Sane.

In case you missed the implications of that, what England's distinguished legal scholars have decided is that it's possible to change your ethnicity by conversion.

Force of habit.

As we all know, news broadcasters in America use helicopters. It's a perfectly good idea: you can get superb footage of car-chases and gunfights and fires and floods and things behind police cordons. But, at some point, it seems to have become more automatic than considered: they just send their helicopters to whatever the biggest story is right now.

I noticed this at the start of the Michael Jackson coverage yesterday — the very start, when no-one was sure whether he was dead or not and the crowd outside the hospital was still small.

"Michael Jackson's been rushed to hospital and reported dead? He's in the hospital now, either being treated or prepared for the morgue? We have to find out what's going on in there. Quick! Send the chopper to get some footage of the hospital's roof."

And then, having got that footage, they broadcast it. For ages.



Either this is a brilliant and lucky accident, or someone called KateX has carefully analysed the way entries in The Telegraph's online dating service are summarised in the ads that appear on the main site, and has written her spiel accordingly:

TELEGRAPH DATING: KateX: Very happy, attractive, relatively unconventional, chilled out blonde who likes most things - gigs, dancing, theatre, nights in the pub, good food, football, holidays and a good...

No, I couldn't help myself: I clicked and went and looked. The next word is "book." Must be a lot of disappointed single male Telegraph-readers out there.

Monday 22 June 2009

Damning with faint praise.

I have to admit that I felt a spot of pride when the Evil Totalitarian Bastards Of Iran named Britain as Enemy Number One. Yes, not America; us. We are now a greater Satan than The Great Satan. Yay! Gordon Brown must be doing something right.

Fans of Barack "Bloody" Obama, take note: when the tyrant sends armed thugs out onto the streets to shoot dead any jumped-up slaves with the temerity to ask for freedom, saying "That's not very nice" is the bare minimum that a democratic world leader ought to be able to manage. Not "Oh, what an incredibly vigorous debate they're having." Your guy is so deficient that Gordon Brown — that's Gordon Brown, weak leader of a dying government, with no democratic mandate as such, famous for being a bit of a nonentity, frankly — Gordon Brown has managed to be significantly more important and powerful and morally right than him on the world stage, by merely saying the bare minimum that any half-way civilised person would say. He didn't even follow up his words with a threat of action. Yet he still upset the evil child-murdering bastards more than Obama did.

Quit while you're behind.

Saturday 20 June 2009

Aye, right.

Funnily enough, I got another tattoo yesterday, a few hours before reading this story:

Rouslan Toumaniantz said today that Kimberley Vlaminck 'absolutely' agreed she wanted 56 stars tattooed on the left side of her face.

But now the 18-year-old is suing Toumaniantz, claiming she had asked him for only three stars - and had fallen asleep during the procedure, waking up to a nightmare in her Belgian hometown of Courtrai.

So it is very fresh in my mind that... ah, how can I put this? It hurts like buggery. Sure, some people have higher pain thresholds than others. But no-one just drifts off and has a nap while having their chin tattooed. There's not much flesh on the chin; the needle would be practically scraping bone. It's not a bloody massage.

Toumaniantz claimed Kimberley was happy with the work when she left his shop in Coutrai but changed her mind when her father saw the stars.

His version just sounds so much more plausible than hers.

As an aside, I have to say that the guy's done a beautiful job and Kimberley looks gorgeous. Just a shame she's... well, you know.... She's already demonstrated her propensity to sue people, so I'll not publish my thoughts on her personality.

Not sure I could be bothered travelling all the way to Belgium for my next tattoo — especially since I live next door to an excellent tattooist, which is a tad more convenient — but, if you're in the Courtrai area, it might be worth popping in.

'I maintain that she absolutely agreed that I tattoo those 56 stars on the left side of her face,' he told newspaper La Derniere Heure.

'A witness, a woman who was present, has already been questioned by police, and she confirms it.

'But be that as it may: Kimberley is unhappy and it is not my wish to have an unsatisfied client. There is a way to remove the tattoos with the help of a laser. I accept to pay for half the cost.'

That's £4250 he's offering, just as a goodwill gesture, compared to the original cost of the tattoo of £55. That may be the best customer service I've ever seen. What a thoroughly decent guy.

Friday 19 June 2009


Nothing to do with Iran, this:

Carlos Owens had handled all kinds of machines as an army mechanic, but he always dreamed of using those skills for one project: his own "mecha,” a giant metal robot that could mirror the movements of its human pilot.

Owens, 31, began building an 18-foot-tall, one-ton prototype at his home in Wasilla, Alaska, in 2004.

He didn't half. Go see the photo.

He foresees mechas having uses in the military and the construction industry but acknowledges that right now they’re best suited to entertainment. The first application he has in mind: mecha-vs.-mecha battles, demolition-derby style.

OK, I love this guy.

Thursday 18 June 2009

The nature of democracy. Again.

Here, in passing, I mentioned one of the greatest but often overlooked advantages of democracy:

Even if it's true that Bush is only doing what he's doing as part of a secret plot by Big Oil to take over the world, or by a sinister cabal to establish a New World Order, so what? That only actually matters in a tyranny. In a democracy, whatever our would-be leaders' true motivation, they have to get our support to get their way. And it doesn't matter whether they're lying about their motivations, because, when we vote, we're not. So, even if Bush didn't really give a damn about the Iraqi people, it didn't matter, because, for him to do what he was trying to do, he needed the votes of tens of millions of Americans. What matters is whether those Americans cared about the Iraqi people.

And now look what's happening:

Lots of folks argue — including President Obama — that Mousavi isn't that different from Ahmadinejad on issues like Israel and Iran's nuclear program and so why make such a fuss? I think this is an awfully static analysis of the situation. Sure, if the election had gone swimmingly and Mousavi had won, he might have been the dutiful Egon Krenz of the Mullahcracy, with some window dressing reforms to placate the masses. Or he might have done better than that. Who knows? But all of that is academic now.

Moreover, that debate is a little annoying because it tends to support the idea that this was a legitimate election in the first place. Mousavi was a handpicked hack. His leadership of the reform forces is by default or as Michael Ledeen put it, "He is a leader who has been made into a revolutionary by a movement that grew up around him." At this point the question is, do the people of Iran succeed or does the clerical politburo and its henchmen succeed. If the people succeed, the regime is in real trouble. It's amazing how so many observers doubt something the regime itself manifestly knows. If these protests weren't a threat to the regime and the established theocratic order the regime wouldn't be shooting people.

Mousavi didn't intend to be a reformer. But now he's been turned into one by his supporters. Democracy has this power, not just to choose its leaders, but to shape them.

I was one of those people who tended to disagree with Bush over the value of democracy. I thought that you needed freedom and a stable society first, then true democracy could take root. While he called for democracy, I called for liberty. And Iran was always a good example of why mere voting by itself isn't enough.

Or so I thought. We're seeing an evil and brutal regime under serious threat from the results of the sham elections that took place inside its rigged system. The dictatorship rejected hundreds of would-be presidential candidates, allowing only those whose unequivocal loyalty it could rely upon to stand. And it doesn't matter: the people are forcing their views into the system and into the candidate. Mousavi no longer has much choice in the matter: he's a reformer whether he likes it or not.

Looks like Bush was right after all: democracy can lead to liberty.

Monday 15 June 2009

Reporters still not reporting.

I couldn't help but be amused by the news reports that there are allegations of election-rigging in iran. This is news? Obviously the election's rigged: that's built into the Iranian system.

What our news reporters would have reported, if they could still be bothered with thought or honesty or both, is that there are allegations of extra unauthorised election-rigging that isn't of an approved type.

Tuesday 9 June 2009

Talking of good writing...

Probably the best writer in the English language today is Michael Marshall Smith. And now he has a blog. This is a Good Thing.

He writes great stories, but the blog is a stark reminder of the fact that his excellent plots are just icing on the cake. It's just his prose that is inherently good, no matter what he's writing about.

For instance, thousands of people have complained about what's happened to British rubbish collection over the last few years. But none have done it like this:

When I was a kid, bin men had an aura, a mystique, something of the night about them: fierce, semi-mythical beings who came with the dawn and hefted sacks of household trash into the grinding back-ends of their trucks, before rumbling ominously away. Their speech was a sequence of impenetrable grunts and howls; their clothes looked as though they had been worn for decades, or secreted like outer skins. The only contact normal citizens had with these creatures was the ‘Christmas box’: a seasonal cash offering given to the member of the tribe that walked most convincingly on hind legs — this ritual having (to my childhood mind, at least) the flavour of a bribe to ensure that the bin men not sneak back in the night to wreak havoc upon the houses they serviced, stealing one of the occupants (or their children) and dragging them away to a dread kingdom given over to the very hungriest of ogres and trolls.


So what were we supposed to do? Call the council, we were told. And do what — ask for them to send some men instead? Or command them to use the big rusted key to open the shed at the back of the depot, where lurks a last remnant of old skool bin men, chained to a post in darkness, fed with scraps of carrion, kept for the occasions when a profligate household needed a slightly-heavier-than-usual bag carried a few feet from curb to cart?

Buying the man's books is not something you're likely to regret.

Monday 8 June 2009

Uninventing the wheel.

I don't want Iran or North Korea to have nuclear weapons. It's just a bad, bad idea. But the thing about atomic bombs is that they are now sixty-year-old technology. As you'd expect, after sixty years, they're not particularly high technology either. Not like they used to be. Schoolkids can tell you how to make them. It's only getting hold of the materials that makes building them a bit tricky. And how long is that going to last?

Imagine if we decided to stop, say, the Mongolians from developing mobile phones, or microchips, or solar panels, or satellites, or lasers or holograms or any of a whole bunch of things which may have been around a while but are still far younger than atom bombs. Could we have done it? Indefinitely? Does that sound like a realistic project?

Even if we do stop today's psycho nutters from getting hold of the things (which would rather require Barack bloody Obama wanting to stop them), we're just putting off the inevitable. Soon enough, an extremist maniac will have a fission bomb, if we're lucky, or a fusion bomb if we're not.

So, for me, all this talk of whether the Ayatollahs and Kim Jong-Il ought to have nuclear weapons rather misses the point. Let's assume they will have them. What then?

All I can see are three options.

One, try Mutually Assured Destruction again. To be fair, it totally worked in the Cold War, and seems to have kept Pakistan and India merely at each other's throats rather than dancing around in showers of blood. But it requires two things to work. It requires both parties to be basically rational and want their people to survive. The Iranians used their own children to clear minefields in the Iran-Iraq War and are rather fond of martyrdom. Kim Jong-Il is batshit crazy. And it also requires a lack of deniability. As the Sudanese are all too aware, the world's powers have become so legalistic that all you need is the faintest hint that you might not be lying when you say "It weren't me!" and they'll refuse to act. Everyone knows how you destroy London: you put the nuke in a car and deny everything. Intercontinental ballistic missiles are traceable, and therefore passe.

Two, you can ensure that any countries that do get hold of nuclear weapons find their leadership class suddenly lacking in insanity. This can only really be achieved by getting rid of the insane ones. This is my favoured option, I don't mind saying, but just look at the fuss over the last few years over the US overthrowing a man who weaponised aflatoxin — aflatoxin, for crying out loud — and replacing his brutal murderous regime with the region's second-freest society. Fair to say, it wouldn't go down well.

And then there's option three: die.


Again with the Steyn. Enough, already.

The thing about Mark Steyn is that he's a great writer. I find it puzzling that so many people who disagree with him feel obliged to slag off his writing. One of my favourite writers is Julie Birchill, and when she's wrong, she's really bloody Wrong — but still worth reading, 'cause she writes the wrongness so well. Steyn is as good as Birchill, if not better.

Anyway, all that's a mere preamble to this:

The speech nevertheless impressed many conservatives, including Rich Lowry, my esteemed editor at National Review, "esteemed editor" being the sort of thing one says before booting the boss in the crotch.



Typical. No sooner does David Cameron do the impossible and persuade me to vote Tory than the Ulster Unionists screw it all up.

My MP is Lady Sylvia Hermon, a thoroughly decent person who is likely to get my vote by dint of that decency. Since the last Northern-Irish election, she has been the Ulster Unionist Party's only MP. Any party with half a brain between them would realise that this makes her the most important person in the party — or, at the very least, up there in the top three or four. Not the UUP. Every time you hear anything on the news about the UUP, it's a bunch of old men discussing important things, with the only member of their party able to wield any actual power in the UK's Parliament conspicuous by her absence. It's been very difficult not to get the impression that they view her as a bit of an embarassment, really.

And it turns out that that impression has been correct. The UUP have made an alliance with the Conservative Party — which is probably a good move in all sorts of ways, except that it turns out they've done it without consulting Hermon.

Let's just recap that, for those who missed the significance. The UUP have agreed to merge with the Conservatives. This means that all UUP MPs will from now on be Conservative MPs, voting with the Conservatives. All UUP MPs is Lady Hermon; there are no others. She wasn't consulted. The UUP leadership are all rather huffy about it and have clearly been caught off guard by some jumped-up little woman not doing what she's told, but a Conservative spokesman seemed quite happy to just call it as he saw it and accused the UUP of screwing up their people-management. Mind you...

It is understood that [her] feeling the Conservatives have little understanding of Ulster politics, compounded by discussions with one senior Tory who repeatedly referred to “Irish MPs” and Mr Cameron’s decision to wear a green tie to a unionist event, has not lessened over time.

And, now she's been told to vote with the Conservatives, she's refused, announced she'll be leaving the party, and decided to stand as an independent at the next election. And, for that, she's got my vote. Who cares if she supports Gordon Brown? He can't rely on her support; he has to talk her into it. She's a good person, and she's now shown that she'll refuse to be pushed around by anyone.

At the present time, I can't see myself standing under a Conservative banner. If my party chooses to move to call themselves by a different name, I'm terribly sorry and terribly disappointed by that but I remain an Ulster Unionist. That was certainly my mandate and I've loved serving the people of North Down. They have stood by me through the most difficult of times and if they choose and wish me to serve them I would do my very best to do that.

Lady Hermon, consider the box ticked.

Cognitive dissonance.

OK, two things.

Whenever anyone mentions the European Elections, I point out that, no, they're the EU Elections. People's response to this tends to be dismissive — one person even said to me, ah, it is Europe really. Now, the EU is to Europe what the UK is to the British Isles.

So my first question is: why is it that these same people, who insist that the EU is Europe, would not simply shrug it off if I were to say that Dublin is in Britain?

As you may have seen in the news, the BNP have won a seat in the EU Elections and are probably going to win at least one more. A lot of people are very upset about this. Thing is, though, that the EU "Parliament" is not actually a parliament, as it has no legislative power. And, what with its having no legislative power, it wouldn't actually matter if the ghost of Adolf Hitler got elected on a Stalinist ticket. MEPs can't do a damned thing except talk for money. Power over the EU resides in the Commission, to which no BNP members have been or are ever likely to be admitted.

So my second question is: why is it that the people who are most upset by the BNP's winning a seat tend to be made more angry, not less, if you remind them that said seat isn't in a real parliament?

Thursday 14 May 2009

He's only been and gone and bloody done it.

Up till yesterday, I'd been second to no-one in my contempt for the politics of David Cameron, a man whose shallow principle-less opinion-poll-based gimicky leadership has done a hell of a lot to diminish the chances of the British public having an actual choice in an election.

Well, yesterday, he got my vote.

(And a fat lot of bloody good it'll do him, since I live in Northern Ireland. But hey.)

It was interesting to note, looking at the expenses that grabbed the headlines and the respective MP's defenses of them, just how obvious it was which MPs had simply made ordinary mistakes and had put them right, which MPs had made reasonable claims which only looked a bit dodgy, and which MPs were blatantly bloody at it: the ones who haven't been taking the piss out of the system and us all are the ones who don't make their primary defence the fact that their claims were within Parliamentary rules.


No 10 said the two shared a cleaner who worked in both their flats. Andrew Brown paid her and was reimbursed for his share of the cost.

Sounds reasonable.


He spotted the mistaken council tax claim himself and repaid the money himself. ... "It is an error, which obviously I wish hadn't happened, but in circumstances in which I was incredibly busy during that period - that is not an excuse, it is just an explanation."

Fair enough.


"The fact is that these allowances would not have been paid if they weren't within the rules"

At it.


"The claims were made within House of Commons rules"

At it.


"Every expense was within the rules of the House of Commons on claiming expenses at the time."

At it.

(I have to admit to a spot of sympathy for Prescott. He's a big man, and yes, loo seats will break. That sort of wear and tear is at least arguably a legitimate claim, and it's a shame that it affords the public such a perfect opportunity to take the piss. Or, rather, it would be a shame if it weren't for the fact that the corrupt bastard also claimed for that vital living expense of having mock-Tudor beams stuck onto the front of his house. So he's going to Hell for his corruption and his taste.)


Ms Blears said she had complied with both Commons and Revenue and Customs rules

At it.

(Incidentally, Blears has decided to cement her reputation as an idiot by attempting to make voters feel better about her by drawing their attention to the fact that Capital Gains Tax, for her, is optional. It's compulsory for the rest of us, Hazel. Oh, and tax is a percentage. Have you not noticed the way your colleagues are paying back 100% of their dodgy claims? Do you really think you can come out looking good by making a big grand public gesture — waving the cheque on camera, no less — of doing conspicuously less than everyone else? You're really not doing yourself any favours. Stop digging.)


"I claimed it, it's within the rules and I have no comment to make."

At it and obnoxious with it.


"If I try to make almost any defence of our collective position - or my position - it looks terrible."

Nice try, but actually no. Plenty of your colleagues have made perfectly reasonable defences which aren't pissing us off, because they appear to be honest. Since you're part of the organisation trying to force this damnable database onto us, I'm sure you'll appreciate that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.

And all this is why I am so impressed with Cameron's very simple statement of the truth:

"I don’t care if they were within the rules," he said of the expenses claims, "they were wrong."

Damn right.

And he's decided to bypass (and, let's face it, politically completely out-maneouvre) the rest of Parliament by not waiting to see whether their self-absorbed and self-interested faffing ever comes up with a decent solution, and instead has announced new — and incredibly strict — rules especially for Tory MPs. He's actually not going to let them claim for food any more. Food! Now, that is a legitimate expense.

Now, yes, he should have done it sooner. The charitable view is that he really was naive enough to trust his fellow MPs to be as honourable as they like to call themselves. More likely, this is more of that opportunism that's got him where he is today and has previously earned him my contempt. But the fact is that, this time, it's worked. It had to, eventually, I suppose. His unprincipled vote-chasing has run him smack into a bloody great principle. And he's stuck with it now.

I am reminded of one of the more interesting responses to Bush Derangement Syndrome — it was a defense of democracy, in fact, and I wish I could remember who wrote it. Might have been Jonah Goldberg. Anyway, the point is this. Even if it's true that Bush is only doing what he's doing as part of a secret plot by Big Oil to take over the world, or by a sinister cabal to establish a New World Order, so what? That only actually matters in a tyranny. In a democracy, whatever our would-be leaders' true motivation, they have to get our support to get their way. And it doesn't matter whether they're lying about their motivations, because, when we vote, we're not. So, even if Bush didn't really give a damn about the Iraqi people, it didn't matter, because, for him to do what he was trying to do, he needed the votes of tens of millions of Americans. What matters is whether those Americans cared about the Iraqi people. And there was a lot of evidence that they did. It only matters whether our leaders lie about facts.

So I don't even care why Cameron has said what he's said and done what he's done in the last couple of days. He's right, and he's doing what's right. Sure, you've got to worry about how consistently a man with no principles can be right, but this thing's big enough for the rest not to matter so much. And it's also big enough to significantly shape the behaviour of the party. Overnight, the Tories have become the most principled party, and clearly not because they wanted to, but because they've been forced into it by Cameron. Well, OK, then. I'll take him as Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, Stephen Fry, in the course of one interview, lost pretty much all the respect I had for him. Fry's logic is very simple and very stupid. Journalists are corrupt. This story of corruption has been brought to light by journalists. Therefore it's a non-story. Presumably, he took the same attitude to the news of Robert Maxwell's corruption. Yeah, thought so.

In answer to your accusation, Stephen, that you so carelessly hurled at the whole damn world, no, I don't fiddle my expenses. I'm quite scrupulous about them, and have previously done, with no fear of opprobrium to motivate me, what MPs have only done when dragged through the media kicking and screaming: suggested to my employer that they not pay certain items if there's any doubt about them. And in answer to your astonishingly profound cluelessness, the reason people are pissed off about this — and yes, they are pissed off; it's not just a load of invented hype by the media — is that (a) the money the MPs are fiddling is ours, so obviously we give more of a damn than when some journalist claims for a crate of champagne they never really drank, (b) MPs get to write their own rules about what they may claim, and (c) MPs have passed legislation that stops us the plebian bloody public from doing exactly what they've been doing and written specific exclusions to that legislation for themselves. And then they try to exclude themselves from the Freedom of Information Act, too, to stop us finding out. It stinks. I might add that Stephen Fry usually works for the BBC, so most of the money that he so happily tells us he's stealing is also coming from us taxpayers. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that he's so staunchly supporting politicians just now.

Here's the thing. If I were to cheat on my expenses, I would be cheating my employers, who are the same people who make the rules governing my expenses and who check my expenses — in other words, the people who are potentially being cheated get to take measures to ensure that they're not. Furthermore, my employers will go under if they don't make a profit, and so they take reasonable measures to control the expense claims and keep them reasonable. If expenses start to hit their profits, they'll make fewer things allowable and cut back on our salaries. And if one of their customers refuses to pay for the cost of our expenses, well... they lose a customer. Big deal.

When MPs cheat on their expenses, they are cheating the taxpaying public, who do not get any say in the expense-claiming process — the people being cheated cannot do anything to stop it happening. The rules governing the expenses are written by MPs themselves, and their expense claims are checked by a wing of their own organisation, comprised of people who face no prospect of any sort of loss if the expense claims are too large and who therefore have no interest in keeping them under control. If MPs' expenses get so big that they start to cost far too much money, well, hell, there's plenty more tax where that came from, eh? And if any of use refuse to pay the cost of their expenses, they send us to jail.

It's sad to see how an intelligent man such as Stephen Fry can be reduced by his own blind loyalty to the Labour Party to such utter fucking stupidity that he can't even see, far less understand, such simple and obvious distinctions as these.

And there goes my chance of ever appearing on QI. Another ambition bites the dust.

Kate Hoey gets it, bless 'er. Maybe she'll make a decent Leader of the Opposition.