Monday, December 31

Exactly what's required.

This V-Tech Grow-and-Go Ride-On thing looks like rather a nice product. If you're a parent, anyway. If you don't know any toddlers, probably best not buy it.

Anyway, what I particularly like is not the product itself so much as its blurb. Firstly, it looks like V-Tech have decided not to run this one by the marketing department (or have a spectacularly bad marketing department), as it's been written in industry insider technical terms:

3-in-1 to grow with the child for floor play, rocker and ride-on fun


We can all see well enough what "floor play" and "ride-on fun" are, but who would ever use these terms? Oh, yes, we've bought this excellent new toy for Tarquin; he can use it for both ride-on play and floor play. Why are you looking at me like that?

Secondly, it does exactly what parents really want it to:

Variety of manipulative features


Damn right. Program your child.

Happy New Year, by the way.

Monday, December 24

Merry Christmas.

Don't know about the rest of you, but I fully expect to have a considerably better Christmas than last year, what with my wife not being on the verge of death and all. We've already been to see Santa, which was just utter class. We've got a tree, we've got presents, I've repeatedly stabbed a duck with a fork and left it sitting in teriyaki for the night, and it's not raining. All is good.

All the best. Have a good year.

Wednesday, December 19

Funny, but still awful.

News from Angola:

The director of an Angolan crime film says police have shot dead two of his actors after mistaking them for real armed robbers.

The duo were carrying unloaded firearms as they filmed a scene in a rough suburb of the capital Luanda, director Radical Ribeiro told AFP news agency.

He said police roared up to the set and began shooting at close range.


This is hilarious, of course, but only from a distance. Two men dead, due to some sort of administrative error and a trigger-happy police force. And they're not just trigger-happy:

"They went on shooting until I shouted out: 'Please don't shoot, this is a movie.'"

The officers then stopped firing and left without attending to the wounded, who were taken to hospital, Mr Ribeiro said.


Yes, once they realised their error and that they were shooting innocent unarmed civilians, the police left the wounded and sodded off. From their point of view, it seems that their terrible mistake was that they were wasting their time, not that they were killing people. We could talk about the various structures of civil society that we have and countries like Angola don't, but, really, isn't this sort of thing supposed to be covered by basic humanity?

Technical difficulties?

Vic and her sister Clare and Daisy and her cousin Noah were at Ikea today. Lucky them. As mentioned a few times previously, Ikea sell some wonderful, excellent products. It is unfortunate that the only way to get hold of these products is to buy them from the worst shop in the world.

The new Ikea in Holywood — the first one on this island — has just been open a few days. Vic and co had been there an hour or so when an announcement came over the tannoy telling everyone to leave the building immediately as they were "experiencing technical difficulties". As if the engines had failed and the shop was going to sink or something. It seems that these technical difficulties affected the lifts, as everyone had to get out via the stairs. So Vic and Clare had to carry a double pram downstairs with two kids in it while, typically, hundreds of Ikea staff looked on, walked past them, ignored them, and just generally helped in no way whatsoever. They weren't alone, of course: loads of mothers had to lug prams down the stairs with no help.

Ikea always offer the excuse of low prices for their appalling customer service. Everything they do badly, they claim that that's how they keep their prices so lovely. So I'd love to hear their explanation for this one. Exactly how much money did they save by having their staff leave the building without helping any of their customers? Assuming that they have a standard evacuation procedure and were following it, how much money do they expect to save by refusing to help any of their customers get out of the building in the event of a fire? I'd've thought the costs of the resultant court cases would be quite high, but presumably Ikea's accountants have run the numbers and decided otherwise.

Once out in the car park, of course, Ikea spotted a genuine emergency that their staff did need to help with: customers still had their shopping bags with them. This was an obvious case of mass attempted shoplifting, and Ikea sprang into action, taking everyone's shopping off them and carrying the bags back into the store — proving, incidentally, that it was not considered dangerous to do so and that the customers had not therefore been inconvenienced for safety reasons.

The place is run by bastards and scum, it really is.

Tuesday, December 18

A frankly impressive lack of charisma.

Went to see The Verve tonight at the Belfast Odyssey Arena. I'm not a fan, but they have a handful of OK songs and a couple of really good ones and aren't actually awful or anything.

On record, that is. Turns out, live, they are actually awful. To an extent greater than seems possible.

Unlike most bands who've got to the arena or stadium stage — U2, Snow Patrol, even the dross that is REM — they haven't figured out how to alter their sound to fit a bloody great room with oodles of echo. The result is mud. Each chord just bleeds all over the next one, creating a morass of indistiguishable noise. They sound like a second-rate pub band doing Verve covers. In a tunnel.

As for Richard Ashcroft... whatever it is that Bono is good at, that Prince is good at, that Michael Hutchence was great at, Ashcroft is bad at. The ability to fill such a large space with your presence, to hold the audience rapt, to project... all of this he lacks in spades. He just stands there in shades, doing that weird squatting waddling thing that rock singers from Manchester insist on, droning on interminably. Every couple of songs, he shouts the name of the next song, preceded by "This is..." That's the full extent of his banter.

I never thought I could be so disappointed by a band I didn't even like in the first place. Most bands who've been around a few years, even if you don't like their music, are at least good at doing what they do. The Verve can't even play Verve songs without fucking them up.

Monday, December 17

Number 27.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the opening night of Number 27 Talbot Street, a new Belfast restaurant. And to say that it was bloody brilliant would be an understatement.

Now, you shouild probably know that the place is owned and run by Vic's best friend's husband. But I have more integrity than you can stick a shake at, and the stingy gits absolutely refuse to give me any freebies, so I don't care. I certainly wouldn't've plugged the place without trying the food. And now I have tried the food, and It Is Good.

The decor is "unashamedly modern" — that was the phrase used by the designer, into whom I bumped at some point. But it's different. A lot of pubs and restaurants these days are spaces that might look cool in a photo but aren't such welcoming places to sit and have a drink and a chat. Number 27 is different: lots of hard shiny surfaces, but without being unfriendly. There are some beautiful, warm works of art on the walls. And the lighting is simply gorgeous. It's just a fundamentally nice place to be.

And the food. At the opening night, we were provided with copious platters of canapes, all of which were little sample-sized versions of stuff off the menu. So while I may not have had an actual meal there, I've tried a lot of what's on offer. The sushi is superb. The frito misto is superb. The risotto is superb. The roast beef is some of the best I've ever had. The weird little parcels containing inexplicably pink goat's cheese are wonderful. The melted taleggio on toast is... well, any idiot, me included, can melt taleggio on toast, but the chutney that came with it was perfect. I haven't had such good food in years.

In short, I fully intend to eat there again, even if my so-called friends do insist on charging me for the privilege. Maybe they'll change their minds after reading this. Fingers crossed.

Friday, December 14

Is waterboarding torture?

I just stumbled across this absolutely brilliant film about waterboarding. Kaj Larsen, an ex-soldier, who had to go through waterboarding as part of his training, arranged to do it again, on film. His purpose was to take some of the abstraction out of the debate about whether it should be allowed.

There are a couple of interviews in the film, too, making two perfectly good points. Firstly, Alan Dershowitz, who opposes the use of torture, says that it should be legalised so that it is never done in secret. If it's going to be used, he says — and it inevitably is — he wants the president to sign a torture warrant for every case, so that there's proper accountability. I think he's right about this. It is the whole point of a chain of command, after all.

Then Juliette Kayyem says that the debate about whether or not waterboarding constitutes torture is a pointless argument that misses the point. What the argument should be about, she says, is: here's an interrogation method; this is what it involves; should it be allowed? I think she's right about this, too.

But the truly interesting thing is, of course, the film of the technique itself. It's not pleasant, as you might imagine. Somehow, Larsen puts up with it for twenty-four minutes — testament to how good a soldier he must have been, since we are told that the average person can stand it for about two. The moment I saw it start, it was obvious to me that it was torture. There's simply no way you can describe a practice like that as anything else.

And then something very interesting happens.

It stops.

"You OK?" asks one of the film crew.

"Oh, that sucked," says Larsen. And he laughs.

Now, he seems to be pretty tough, and he has a minute to get his breath back before this exchange. And it's not exactly a joyous laugh of merriment, obviously. But still. The fact that he laughs while describing what he's just gone through puts new doubt in my mind. Part of me thinks that an experience that you can laugh about as soon as it's over perhaps isn't quite as bad as proper torture. It's simply not in the same league as having your thumbs cut off.

My point here is not that I approve of the practice; neither is it that I'm against it. Quite the opposite: having seen first the technique itself and then its immediate aftermath, I simply have absolutely no idea. Fascinating.

Thursday, December 13

Mutual respect.

Just stumbled across an interesting post by Mike at The Monkey Tennis Centre (great name, by the way):

Other than among Islamic hardliners, you would think that the plight of British teacher Gillian Gibbons, who faces jail and 40 lashes in Sudan for allowing her pupils to name a teddy bear Mohammed, would elicit near-universal sympathy.

Not so, judging by the comments of a sizable minority of commenters on the BBC's website, who appear to think that Mrs Gibbons deserves everything she gets. This is just a selection of their views ... :

... We always preach that when foreigners come to Britain they need to do their homework, learn our culture and abide by our laws. ...

... If we expect people living or working in the UK to abide by our laws, British citizens working abroad should be expected to abide by the laws of the country they work in. ...

... When working in a particular country it is imperative that you comply with and respect the rules of that country. This lady clearly did not comply and respect such rules and must suffer the consequences. ...

... Why do we think that anyone coming to the UK must abide by our rules and regulations, but that the same does not apply to us when we are abroad? ...


The notion that "we expect them to abide by our laws, so we should abide by theirs" is worryingly prevalent, and an example of how the doctrines of multiculturalism and moral equivalence have corrupted the minds of many in the West. Of course we expect foreign visitors to comply with our laws - but our laws don't decree that a person should be flogged for giving the wrong name to a cuddly toy.


Actually, I don't agree with Mike here. It's true: not that you should necessarily respect the laws of the country you're in, but that you can expect to face the consequences if you break them. It's true that laws in the Sudan are absurd, that their "justice" is a joke, and that the country is generally just plain run by bastards, but the sad fact remains that it isn't a colony of Britain and so British subjects don't have special rights there. If you visit the place, you have to obey its stupid laws and live by its nasty small-minded barbaric mediaeval mores. More fool you for going to the hellhole in the first place, Mrs Gibbons.

But there's a flip-side to that. Just as the Sudanese have no duty to give special consideration to visiting British infidels, so the British state has no duty to mollycoddle the Sudanese. Our government supposedly disapproves of theirs, after all — or so it claims from time to time. I understand that a certain amount of pussyfooting around was necessary while Gibbons was still in jail over there, but she's out and home now. So broadcast a warning to all Britons in Sudan to get out of the country ASAP, expel their ambassador from London, and cut down on that money we keep giving them — most of it's to aid the Sudanese victims of the Sudanese government, but we could at least reduce those portions that help the ruling class.

It's not a matter of punishing them. It's certainly not a matter of infringing their sovereignty. It's a simple matter of asserting our values. "Yes," we should be saying to them, "you have every right to punish Britons in your country under your laws. And we have every right to choose who to give our money to and what kind of people to invite to our state functions. We're not going to pretend you're civilised when you're not. You're just not our kind of people. Oh, and have this DVD of the 2007 British Comedy Awards as a parting gift. Bye."

Anything but this crap:

The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, said:

... 'I want to pay tribute to the work of Lord Ahmed and Baroness Warsi whose welcome initiative has been important in securing this outcome. They, and the Muslim community in the UK, have shared our view that this was always an innocent misunderstanding.'


Whether this was an innocent misunderstanding has absolutely nothing to do with it. Because what if it hadn't been? What if she had wanted to insult or criticise the genocidal religious totalitarians who run the Sudan?

My nation has no spine. And, rather unfortunately, everyone knows it.

Wednesday, December 12

I am shocked, shocked, I say.

It has taken three years for experts from three leading universities to discover that ...

Extreme inebriation is often seen as a source of personal esteem and social affirmation amongst young people ... Tales of alcohol-related mishaps and escapades were key markers of young peoples' social identity. These 'drinking stories' also deepen bonds of friendship and cement group membership. Not only does being in a friendship group legitimise being very drunk — being the subject of an extreme drinking story can raise esteem within the group. ... Inebriation within the friendship group is often part of a social bonding ritual that is viewed positively and linked with fun, friendship and good times.


Sometimes you just have to marvel at the culture of academia, that allows people who need three years to find that out to call themselves "experts".

Monday, December 10

Too much help.

I've been shopping in supermarkets for quite a few years now. And I know how I like to pack things; I've got my system. We all have. Some things go on top of other things. Some things go a certain way up. Only a fool would put that in the same bag as these. You know. And, quite often, I'm shopping for more than one household, so want to keep certain items in separate bags because they're not going to the same place as everything else.

So I realised the other day that attempts by supermarket checkout staff to pack my bags for me actually make me angrier than any other single phenomenon in the world. Even government. They used not to do this. I spent thirty happy years growing up in a world where supermarkets chucked the food at you as quickly as possible and you and the whole family had to pack as a perfectly choreographed team in order to get out of the next shopper's way quickly enough. But no, now they go and get all nice and helpful. It's driving me up the bloody wall.

Now, usually, they ask you, "Would you like some help with your packing?" And I can politely say, "No, thank you" and then I get a bit of a look from them and it dawns on me that they thought it was a rhetorical question. I'm not supposed to say no. They think they're being helpful. What kind of ungrateful fool would turn down an offer of help? And then I end up having to pack at insane speeds, because, if just a couple of pots of yoghurt don't get stowed quite fast enough, the checkout person will sigh very slightly — as if to say, "See? I knew you couldn't pack quickly enough without my help." — and start packing for me anyway. Even though I have expressly asked them not to. What is wrong with this world, that that is not considered rude?

Not only is it not considered rude, but what would be considered rude would be for me to ask them to stop it. When someone does you a favour out of the kindness of their hearts, it's not really on to tell them to bog off. For some reason, this same etiquette seems to apply when they're not doing it out of the kindness of their hearts but rather to get you out of their sight as quickly as possible. Livid though I am at their crappy packing (no, it is not organised to put all the liquids in the same bag! It will break, idiot!), I can't bring myself to fight my own annoying Britishness by saying anything. So instead, I Drop A Hint.

When the bag that they have badly packed trundles down the conveyor belt to me, I unpack it and then repack it the way it should be packed. I'm going to have to do this anyway to avoid breakages and squishages and to balance the bags properly if I'm going to be carrying them, so I may as well do it here and now and hope that they notice and stop. I mean, you pack a bag for someone and they immediately unpack it. Just how obtuse would you need to be to ignore a hint like that? Well, exactly as obtuse as a supermarket checker-outer, apparently. From their stunted point of view, I'm now going even more slowly than before, so need even more help, so they do even more packing for me. But I'm not going slowly. I'm actually going faster to try and counteract the fact that they're slowing me down. Plus I'm wasting precious energy on not screaming.

And that's if they ask. Sometimes, they just start packing for me, without so much as a by-your-leave. This is as bad as before, only I don't get to pack even one bag my way. Bastards.

And then there's the charities. It started with the scouts, but now everyone's in on it. Some moppet with a big plastic bucket that I'm supposed to toss coins into because they have chucked all my shopping randomly into plastic bags, as if simply being inside a plastic bag is all I require of my shopping. And they always seem to come in twos, so there's not even enough room for me to stand, let alone to get to my shopping before they do. And then I'm supposed to pay them for having done their little bit to jam a spanner into my day. And some of them aren't even proper charities. At my local Asda, there were some kids collecting so that their drama group could go to the USA. Now we've buggered up your shopping, please pay for our holiday. No.

And then there's the nonsense with the conveyor belt. I put stuff on there in the order in which I want to pack it. Approximately. What could possibly go wrong? But then you get those weird check-out people who seem to be having some sort of private don't-let-the-conveyor-belt-move competition. The conveyor belt is actually there to make their lives easier; it brings items to them so that they can reach eveything easily and don't end up straining themselves reaching for stuff. But these guys seem to want the strain. They reach as far back up the belt as they can, grabbing the dog biscuits while leaving one lone cucumber sitting on the belt's sensors and stopping it from moving. Why? What would be the big problem if the conveyor belt were to move? If I'm lucky enough to have been allowed to do my own packing, this completely screws it up.

So, supermarket people, if you're reading, here are some notes for you. Firstly, if a customer asks you not to pack for them, don't pack for them. (You'd think in this day and age that people would know that no means no.) Secondly, stop pissing around with the conveyor belt. I know I'm not the only person to put stuff on there in a useful and non-random order. Thirdly, if you start packing, unasked, for a customer, and that customer is me, be aware that, while I may look only mildly annoyed, I am in fact pouring all of my energy into not screaming at you. And I can really scream.

Wednesday, December 5

Gillian Gibbons.

The whole ridiculous teddy-bear story has been more of the usual, frankly, but, now she's back home and has talked to the press, we get to see just what an impressively thick woman Gillian Gibbons is.

"I'm just an ordinary middle-aged school teacher who went out to have a bit of an adventure, and got a bit more than I bargained for," Gibbons said at a brief press conference at the airport.


What is the world coming to, eh? You go to a country in which an ethno-religious genocide is ongoing, for a bit of an adventure. And then something slightly bad happens to you. What are the chances?

"I don't think anyone could have imagined it would have snowballed like this."


Gosh, no. Who could have imagined that large numbers of Muslims in a devout Muslim country might completely overreact to a tiny little thing, form mobs, and demand the death of a westerner? There's certainly no precedent for it.

"I was very upset to think that I might have caused offense to anyone, very, very upset," Gibbons said.


You know, some people might have been upset by this:

Some Sudanese protesters, however, demanded far more punishment, such as lashes or even death.


But no, when an angry mob bays quite literally for her head, Gibbons is simply appalled that she might have made some dreadful faux pas.

"I am very sorry to leave Sudan. I had a fabulous time. It is a beautiful place and I had a chance to see some of the countryside. The Sudanese people I found to be extremely kind and generous and until this happened I only had a good experience."


Is this woman even aware of the hundreds of thousands killed and the millions of refugees? She had a fabulous time while the extremely kind and generous people went about clearing their beautiful country of black people and Christians by killing them.

"I wouldn't like to put anyone off going to Sudan"


But fearing for her safety, she returned to England immediately.


Seeing her on camera spouting this drivel, there really did appear to be no suggestion that her interview was all a big put-on.

Fate.

I only noticed this for the first time the other day.

In the Band Aid video, the line "The greatest gift you'll give is life" is sung over footage of Paula Yates.

Even by fate's standards, that's pretty cruel.

Wednesday, November 28

Purely anecdotal, I know.

Did anyone else notice an increase in phishing emails a few days ago? You know, about the time our lords and masters lost our bank account numbers? And before they announced it, too.

By the way, just how cynical does a politician need to be to distract attention from their endemic incompetence by announcing that they've broken anti-corruption laws?

Monday, November 26

Predictive text.

Got this text message from my wonderful wife:

You going to be good any time soon?


Thank you, Nokia.

Wednesday, November 21

The wisdom of Amazon.

First, a recommendation: Diary Of A Wombat by Jackie French is an absolutely brilliant children's book: wonderful illustrations by Bruce Whatley, a nice simple little story, a very cute wombat, and highly amusing for the adults reading it.

I stumbled across it when buying The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay, one of the greatest and funniest children's books ever written. "Aha!" said Amazon. "You like Australian children's books with animals in them? Try this!" And I did, and it's brilliant.

Thing is, I have now bought two kids' books containing wombats. And this precedent has had a profound effect on my Amazon account. When I visit the site now, I'm confronted with a list of recommendations: Wombat Goes Walkabout, Wombat Divine, Swim, Little Wombat, Swim, One Woolly Wombat, and, of course, Possum Magic.

Amazon should investigate murders.

The wisdom of the ages.

Look, Mohammed. If you won't go to the mountain, you're not going to see the mountain. Simple as that. It's not coming to you. No, it's not. I don't care what the proverb says. It's a bloody mountain. Going to places is not its thing.

So, are you going to the mountain?

No?

Are you sure?

Fine. No mountain for you, then.

Now sit down and shut up.

Tuesday, November 20

Me and twenty-five million others.

Well, isn't this just lovely? If you live in the UK, you could hardly fail to have heard about this today, but, for the rest of youse, here are the salient points.

The National Audit Office were doing some sort of audit on Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs. So some flunky at HMRC helpfully burnt some of the data to be audited on to a couple of CDs and put them in the post, presumably because neither HMRC nor the NAO have heard of the Internet. The CDs never arrived at NAO. After they failed to arrive, it turned out that they had just been sent by standard unregistered unrecorded delivery. They're as missing as missing can be. Oops.

On the discs are HMRC's entire Child Benefit database: the names, addresses, previous addresses, bank account details, dates of birth, National Insurance numbers and children's names and dates of birth of 7.25 million families — that's about 25 million people. Oops again.

Oh, but don't worry: they're password protected. In the Windows sense, no doubt.

Gordon Brown has proven one tiny way in which his government is better than Blair's: the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, announced this in the Commons today. Under Blair, he'd have announced it in four months' time.

Another improvement over the usual: Paul Gray, the chairman of HMRC, has resigned. It's sad that it's actually become unusual for someone responsible for an almighty country-screwing travesty to accept that responsibility, but it has, so thank you to Mr Gray for doing the decent thing.

And one final little blessing: the courier company used were TNT, not the Royal Mail. The police say that they currently have no reason to believe that the discs are in nefarious hands rather than simply lost by incompetent ones. And the police are probably right about that, for the next couple of hours — now that the Chancellor's told the world what's on those discs, we'd better hope against hopes that whoever finds them isn't a bastard. But, if the Royal Mail had been entrusted with them in the first place, we could be absolutely one-hundered-percent confident that the discs had been stolen by professional criminals.

As it happens, I know a professional auditor. He travels the world, auditing firms. As I understand it, that's the usual way of doing things: you're going to audit someone, you go round and audit them, in their office. Asking them to send you information and promise really sincerely that it's genuine just doesn't quite cut it, and we should be concerned that this appears to be how the National Audit Office is doing things. But the NAO is in London and HMRC's Child Benefit Headquarters is in Newcastle, and we all know how London civil servants feel about setting foot in [shudder] The North.

Mr Darling said they should not even have been sent in the first place, as a junior official breached all Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs standing procedures by transferring them via couriers TNT to the NAO.


This just isn't good enough, is it? These systems are supposed to have at least some protection from criminals, but it turns out that the only thing stopping a lower-rung tax monkey from burning the entire database to disc is a rule that, you know, you're really supposed to obey, if you'd be so kind. What if someone decides to break the rules? Why is this data even accessible from a PC with a burner on it? Why are HMRC's computer systems not set up simply to disallow the copying of certain classes of data? Come to that, what's with the bank account numbers? They're used by automatic computer systems to make automatic payments, so, once they've been input, there is simply no reason why a human being need ever see them. What these missing discs should contain under "Bank account number" is "XXXXXXXX". You know, like on all my credit card receipts. Jesus wept.

I've said for a while now that it's no good opposing the ID Database scheme, because defeating it just for now isn't good enough: the idea keeps coming round again and again, under different governments, so the very concept, not just today's suggested implementation, needs to be utterly defeated. And the way it'll be utterly defeated is that, once it's been running for a few years and proven to be unworkable, unreliable, corrupt, insecure, and useless for good things but very useful for bad things such as locking up innocent people, then the public will turn against it. You need the streets to be piling up with rubbish before anyone'll vote for Thatcher.

I wonder if this be the start of it. It surpasses even my cynicism: I'd imagined that the Government would need to actually get the ID Database up and running before they started to give practical demonstrations of just what a Bad Thing it is. Apparently not.

Monday, November 12

A problem with self-esteem.

Thanks to Laban for this gem:

A LOTTERY scratchcard has been withdrawn from sale by Camelot - because players couldn't understand it.

....

To qualify for a prize, users had to scratch away a window to reveal a temperature lower than the figure displayed on each card. As the game had a winter theme, the temperature was usually below freezing.

But the concept of comparing negative numbers proved too difficult for some Camelot received dozens of complaints on the first day from players who could not understand how, for example, -5 is higher than -6.


So they withdrew it? If I were running Camelot, we'd've responded by launching a new range of scratchcards featuring surds. Root-2 over 3 and root-3 over 2 — which is higher?

The main purpose of this story, as far as anyone can see, is to report to the whole world what an utter dolt is one Tina Farrell of Levenshulme.

The 23-year-old, who said she had left school without a maths GCSE, said: "On one of my cards it said I had to find temperatures lower than -8. The numbers I uncovered were -6 and -7 so I thought I had won, and so did the woman in the shop. But when she scanned the card the machine said I hadn't.

"I phoned Camelot and they fobbed me off with some story that -6 is higher - not lower - than -8 but I'm not having it."


Ms Farrell appears not to have grasped that whether she is having a mathematical truth has no effect on it.

"I think Camelot are giving people the wrong impression - the card doesn't say to look for a colder or warmer temperature, it says to look for a higher or lower number."


Now, this is the true brilliance of the deranged. She understands that -8° is a lower temperature than -6°, but thinks that -8 is a higher number than -6. Has she never guessed why we use those numbers to denote those temperatures?

"Six is a lower number than 8. Imagine how many people have been misled."


Yes, just imagine.

This is, of course, evidence of just how crap a British education is these days. But, fun though it be to take the piss out of her over it, not because this woman can't count. Everyone has trouble understanding some things; Lord knows there was plenty of stuff at school I didn't get my head around (though that was usually because it was boring). For Tina Farrell, it was maths. Fair enough. She's hardly alone. The chances of her having had a decent maths teacher are pretty low. But, aside from that, there's a more fundamental problem with her education.

She doesn't even have a maths GCSE — and anyone who's sat one will know just how incredibly bad you need to be to fail it — yet, when faced with Camelot, a company who run the National Lottery and therefore, one might reasonably assume, know a thing or two about numbers, her reaction is to stamp her foot and insist that she's right and they're wrong. This is a woman who has never been taught that she can be wrong. About anything. Even stuff she admits to knowing nothing about.

This is the problem with the cult of self-esteem. If you never tell kids they're wrong for fear of upsetting the poor little dears, this is what you end up with. And this is, in fact, what we have ended up with.

Tuesday, November 6

Tuesday, October 23

One's area of expertise.

This is just plain awful:

A radical plan to persuade people to stop smoking, take more exercise and change their diets was proposed last night by a leading Government adviser.


Ah, proposed by a government advisor, eh? I think we all know by now where that leads.

In a speech to the Royal Statistical Society last night, Professor [Julian] Le Grand said instead of requiring people to make healthy choices – by giving up smoking, taking more exercise and eating less salt – policies should be framed so the healthy option is automatic and people have to choose deliberately to depart from it.


Making the healthy option "automatic": there's a nice formulation.

Among his suggestions are a proposal for a smoking permit, which smokers would have to produce when buying cigarettes, an "exercise hour" to be provided by all large companies for their employees and a ban on salt in processed food.


Yes, that sort of automatic.

What's particularly sad about this is the sheer humdrumness of it. This is a normal state proposal these days; there'll be ten more like it next week. Typically enough, it sounds like something out of 1984 — as Jon points out, that's because, this time, it actually is out of 1984.

The interesting new twist in today's bit of creeping fascism — and I use the word advisedly — is Professor Le Grand's frankly brilliant marketing. The word he uses to describe this scheme is "libertarian". His reasoning for this makes perfect sense to anyone who doesn't have a clue what the word means. Like him, for instance.

The idea, dubbed "libertarian paternalism", reverses the traditional government approach that requires individuals to opt in to healthy schemes. Instead, they would have to opt out to make the unhealthy choice, by buying a smoking permit, choosing not to participate in the exercise hour or adding salt at the table.

By preserving individual choice, the approach could be defended against charges of a "nanny state," he said. "Some people say this is paternalism squared. But at a fundamental level, you are not being made to do anything. It is not like banning something, it is not prohibition. It is a softer form of paternalism."


To quote him is to ridicule him. Sadly, none of our political class realise that. They have a pronounced tendency to mistake this sort of codswallop for the wisdom of the ages.

And I particularly like the way this git is described in the tagline:

Obesity, alcohol abuse, smoking: Britain is among the most unhealthy countries in Europe. Now a pioneering NHS adviser is proposing a revolutionary cure for our ills


"Pioneering"? What's so bloody pioneering about this? Using the power of the state to control people is humanity's default option, and has been practised enthusiastically for longer than recorded history. It's the exceedingly rare individual who actually does something to increase our freedom who's a pioneer.

Anyway, enough. It's clear to us all exactly what flavour of bastard this man is, and it's clear to us all that he will get his way, because the British people, whose ancestors did more to spread the cause of freedom across the globe than anyone else's and whose ideas continue to do so, want nothing more than nice quiet bureaucratic slavery. Fine. Let them have it. It's the only way they'll learn.

But I would like to say a word or two about this proposed salt ban.

Food manufacturers would be banned from adding salt to processed foods which is a major cause of high blood pressure. This would hand control of the salt content to the consumer who could choose to "opt out" of the healthy product by adding salt at the table


Now, this really pisses me off. This is absolutely bloody typical of what's wrong with these people. It's not the statism, or the obsession with other people's health, the refusal to comprehend that people might knowingly take the less healthy option, it's not the bedrock belief that people are broken and that he needs to fix them. No, it's the fact that Professor Julian Le Grand cannot cook.

I don't mean he's not a great gourmet cook; I mean he can't cook at all. I mean the man can't even fry an onion properly. Maybe he can manage toast. And how do I know this? Because he thinks that putting salt in food during cooking and putting salt on top of food after cooking are the same thing. This is so fundamentally wrong that I guarantee that, were you to accept something as simple as scrambled eggs from this man, you'd regret it.

Firstly, all flavourings behave differently when heated. The flavours change, and mix, and infuse the food around them. You can't achieve the same effect by adding them later, cold. If you could, we would just eat everything raw. After all, what's so special about salt? If it can just be added later, raw and cold, so can everything else.

Secondly, salt isn't just a flavouring. It's used in cooking primarily for what it does to the food around it: due to its crystalline structure, it draws liquids — and therefore flavours — out of things. You sprinkle salt on frying onions if you don't want them to brown: it draws out the onion juice, meaning there's more liquid in the pan, meaning the onions can cook for longer without browning. You don't put salt on frying onions just because you want them to taste saltier. Cooking's a little more complex than that.

But the health fanatics can't get their heads around this. I hate their underlying presumption. Cooking involves some of the most advanced chemistry mankind has developed, but these guys think there's essentially no more to it than putting all your flavours in a sack and giving it a shake. They push this image of the packaged food industry as being full of mad scientists coming up with ever-more outlandish chemicals to chuck in the pot, just to see what colour the public turn when they eat it. There's no acknowledgement that any of those ingredients might go in for a reason.

And that's the problem. We have people making government policy about what can go in our food who know nothing about food. We wouldn't tolerate a chef prescribing our drugs — or I wouldn't, anyway — so why do we have doctors doing our cooking?

The salt ban's already snuck in, to some extent: the fascists have got their way with baby food. Go out and buy a jar: spaghetti bolognese or chicken risotto or any of the other things that you know should taste good. And look at the ingredients: baby food is not, as a rule, full of crap: it's good stuff, and it's well cooked. Apart from that one little thing: there's no added salt. Now taste it. That's what all your food is going to taste like in a few years: nothing. Enjoy.

Excellence.

Got one of my pictures put onto canvas the other day. Picked Your Image 2 Canvas simply because Google threw them up, and despite my hatred of the use of "2" to mean "to". (It's not grammar pedantry; it's the fact that they're not really pronounced quite the same, and my inner voice insists on pronouncing the "2" as "two", not "to", and it just sounds really stupid in my head.) Anyway, glad I did.

I uploaded a colour photo and selected the "sepia" option. Paid me money, and a few days later got a nice big good-looking canvas — in colour. Oops.

So I emailed them:

Dear Sir or Madam,

I received my order today. It is very nice, thank you, but there is one error with it. As you can see from the email below, I asked that it be in sepia. The canvas I received today was in full colour.

Please let me know what may be done about this.

Thanks very much for your help.


I got this response later the same morning:

Hi there

Extremely sorry about this error. I have checked with the print team and we can confirm this was done in full colour, a small oversight.

Please keep the one you have received and I will action this order to be re completed.

Sorry for any inconvenience

Regards


Plus, what with having made a mistake, they were bloody quick about it: the replacement was dispatched that afternoon.

So now I have two versions. And, you know, the canvas doesn't look bad in colour at all.

It's brilliant customer service. So many firms would have insisted on trying to get the first canvas back, even though it's of no use to them, just out of some misguided principle. Your Image 2 Canvas did exactly the right thing, ensuring that their mistake caused the absolute minimum of inconvenience to their customer. I have no idea what the profit margins are in their business; they could even have made a loss on this one. But they've guaranteed my repeat business.

It's often said that any company can be good when things go right; it's when things go wrong that you find out who the good ones are.

Thursday, October 18

Customers versus the public.

My train into work on Monday missed a station.

Now, these things can happen at this time of the year. For all the popular ridicule the rail services receive for the excuse of "leaves on the line", the fact is that it is a real excuse: the leaves rot, creating slime, making rails slippery. There used to be a very simple solution: cut down all the trees anywhere near a railway line. But people like trees, so we have a problem.

That being said, the train did stop, just a little too late, which goes to show that these modern trains have all sorts of clever technology in them and can cope with these things as long as they're driven properly. Had the driver been going more slowly or had braked sooner, the train would have stopped earlier — that's basic physics, that is. And given that, looking out of the windows of the train, I could see flurries of Autumn leaves descending all around, the whole leaves-on-the-track thing shouldn't really have caught the driver off guard. But hey. None of that, really, is the point.

The point is what happened next.

Firstly, the train sat there for a couple of minutes. Some people wanted to get off at the station (Helen's Bay, if you're interested), and told the conductor so. The train had only just overshot: the last couple of doors in the last carriage were actually at the platform, so it was possible for passengers to step through those doors on to the platform perfectly safely and normally — if, that is, the doors were open. But they weren't.

The conductor went to see the driver, then came back and explained that they were phoning headquarters to ask for permission to reverse the train. Waiting for that permission to be denied took about ten minutes. Apparently, it's far too dangerous to reverse a train all of twenty metres at a station with absolutely nothing behind it as far as the end of the line. Tsk. So then, ridiculously, they had to get permission to continue driving the train forwards to the next station. This took another few minutes.

All this time, the passengers who wanted to get off at Helen's Bay and who could see Helen's Bay Station tantalisingly just the other side of the doors were asking the conductor if they could please be allowed to get off the train. Could he not just open the very last door on the train? Absolutely not, he said; that would be far far too dangerous for some reason. (Of course, on the old carriages whose continued use politicians are always claiming is such a terrible indictment of our rail system, one could simply open the door, using a handle. Thank God we've upgraded.) The only "solution" he was willing to offer was that they get off at the next station and catch the next train back in the other direction. Amazingly, no-one was very happy with this generous offer to do nothing whatsoever.

And then there was his tone of voice. I've seen it time and again on these trains: whenever there's any sort of problem, the reaction of the on-train staff is to shout angrily at the passengers. They don't see delays, cancellations, or missing stations as serious problems; for them, the real problem is that some bloody jumped-up passenger has had the temerity to complain about it. So he shouted at them, clearly hoping that they'd shut up and go away. One of the passengers suggested that the driver had been going a bit too fast, which seemed to me like a pretty uncontroversial statement under the circumstances, and that really made the conductor angry. That some passenger might impugn the abilities of his driver was simply unacceptable, so he shouted more loudly. Considering his insistence that the wheel slippage was absolutely nothing to do with the way the train was driven and could simply affect any train at this time of the year, it seems a little odd that he thought that his suggestion that passengers catch another train to get back to their station was a good one.

One thing he kept shouting was "What more can I do?" and "There's nothing else I can do." So I piped up "You could offer them taxis." He was furious, and came and shouted at me for a while about how crap taxis are. Compared to trains, I assume he meant. He sarcastically shouted "You want taxis? I'll call taxis. I'll give you the money myself to get taxis. Would that make you happy, sir? Anything else you think I should do?"

The train went very slowly for the rest of the journey, but still missed another stop. The conductor triumphantly stomped through the train, saying "Try saying he was going too fast that time." It was good that he put our minds at rest on this point, because that's definitely what we'd all been worrying about.

I rang NIR's complaints line later to tell them that I had never worked for a company where I wouldn't get sacked for talking to customers the way their conductor did. They told me that they have a policy of not providing taxis for customers (which is nice). I said that I wanted to make it clear that I wasn't complaining about the delay or their policies — if the conductor had explained the policy of not providing taxis in the same tone of voice that they just had, I wouldn't have been on the phone complaining. They apologised and said they'd report the complaint, but the woman on the line actually did say to me "We are publicly funded." As if that makes the behaviour a little less bad.

But it does highlight the problem. Customer service is sometimes bad — sometimes bloody awful — but can always be fixed — some companies, in fact, have had near-miraculous turnarounds in the quality of their service. The reason it can be fixed is that at its heart is a recognition of where the revenue comes from: the customer. The very phrase "customer service" has it built in: serve your customer so that they will give you money. And there's rarely any doubt about who your customer is: it's the guy offering you money. But then there's public service. The trouble with public service is that the public are a bit of an anonymous blob. While the customer standing in front of you, wanting to give you money, might be a member of the public, he ain't the public. If you work in public service, your job is not to serve him.

As mentioned previously, I have to move seats at least once every journey to escape the people who see me reading a book and so sit down next to me to have loud conversations. Today, I had to move to get away from that same bloody conductor, who was shouting into his mobile phone while standing next to the sign which says to use your mobile phone with consideration for other passengers. Ironically enough, he was shouting about some jobsworthy union dispute. The problem was that one of his colleagues was going to arrive home a whopping ten minutes late due to the way the train timetables worked out — he wasn't being asked to do ten minutes overtime or anything; it was just that his company-provided free journey home was going to be slightly later than ideal. The conductor was of the opinion that such a delay to his colleague's plans for the evening is totally unacceptable and that his bosses should therefore provide a taxi.

Wednesday, October 10

Honesty.

I don't necessarily mind sales calls — I have been sold some decent stuff over the phone in my time, including my first Nokia — but I can't be bothered with time-wasting crap. If you've got a decent product at a good price, tell me about it, and stop with the childish trying to pretend you're my friend. I am not going to buy anything from you just because we had a chat about the weather.

Got this call today. From 01253 757069. On my mobile. I was at work. I started it the same way I start every sales call these days.

— Hello?

— Hi, I'm calling from a company called Reclaim 2 Gain, how are you today?

— Can I ask what it is you sell?

— Sorry?

— Can I ask what it is you sell?

[incredulously] Sell?


And she hung up.

Is that really such an impertinent question?

I have a rule of thumb, so obvious that it's never even occurred to me to spell it out before. Do not buy things from people who won't tell you what they're selling. It's just a bad idea.

Monday, October 8

A message for the previous owners of my house.

Hi there.

The point of the tongue and groove in laminate flooring is that the pieces slot nicely together just as they are. This design cuts down on the amount of work required when fitting the floor — you don't need to, for instance, fill each groove with superglue before placing the tongues therein. Were you to do such a thing, I'd really pity the poor bastard who had, one day, to take the floor up. If all the pieces were glued together, the only way to get them up would be to break them, causing them to splinter and turning the thin layer of plastic laminate into jagged razor-sharp pieces, somewhat painful to carry.

So thank God you didn't do that, eh?

The meaning of words.

You know what annoys me? (If you read this blog even occasionally, you can probably give quite a long list in answer to that. But anyway.) It's the way the enemy class use the concept of cost when discussing tax cuts. It's not just those who oppose tax cuts; it's all of them. It's built into their way of thinking.

Like George Osborne, here:

Mr Osborne told the Conservative party conference in Blackpool that the £3.1bn cost of increasing the inheritance tax threshold and the £400m bill for scrapping stamp duty would be funded by imposing a £25,000-per-year charge for "non-domicile" taxpayers.


And David "Bloody" Cameron, here:

Every tax reduction we're speaking about this week, like the change in stamp duty, will be fully paid for by tax changes elsewhere.


And The Telegraph's Brenda Carlin, here:

The proposals ... would mean a tax reduction that would cost the Treasury £2.6 billion


Only last week, my next-door neighbours didn't give me a trillion pounds. Where the hell am I going to find that kind of money?

Wednesday, October 3

Taking the piss.

The Royal Mail's "workers" are at it again.

Royal Mail is hugely disappointed that the Communication Workers Union has announced a fresh round of strike for the following dates:

48-hour national strike on 5 and 6 October
48-hour national strike on 8 and 9 October


If you're dead clever like me, you might notice that the 6th of October is a Saturday and the 8th is a Monday. The Royal Mail do not operate on Sundays. These two strikes are 48-hour strikes in the same way that the National Union of Miners staged a series of fifty-one 5-day strikes.

Tuesday, October 2

Floating points.

If you're at all interested in mathematics or computers or both, check out Joel Spolsky's brilliant explication of that new Excel bug.

By now you've probably seen a lot of the brouhaha over a bug in the newest version of Excel, 2007. Basically, multiplying 77.1*850, which should give you 65,535, was actually displaying 100,000.


Oops.

Providing inst ironware intimacy to your playing.

Looking around the Web at electronic drum kits, I stumbled across this rather wonderfully written site. I think it's just one of those sites automatically cobbled together out of paid links, but the algorithm doing this particular load of cobbling has one of the most beautiful prose styles I've seen in quite some time. You can just pick pretty much any sentence, and it's a thing of greatness.

Here's what they have to say about Pintech's E-Gig, a four-piece electronic drum kit:

The outfit intentional by means of growing in bear in mind.


The Alesis DM5 is "reticent", apparently, and has

2 instinctive question cymbal pads, a give up foot pedal, tube-shaped back up wheel, and total indispensable interconnectedness cables. Complete in company with a headphone yield, the DM5 is the idealistic pleximetry go module and controller scheme that enables players of wholly accomplishment levels to practise quiet or occupy to the present in the estimation of trust.


I've got to get me some of those cables.

And Ion's "state-of-the prowess" IED01 kit?

The go character is first and allows you to hone your chops in concealment. The yield of the go module put up be directed into whatsoever supplementary stereoscopic picture larboard or PA scheme which time it's clip to acquire positive!


I hope they do a starboard model too.

Over in the saxophone department, the EM Winston 350MW Soprano Saxophone comes with what must be one of the best special offers on any musical instrument ever:

Saxophone includes mouth, swob clergy, shoulder strap, and caseful.


A mouth! An actual mouth! For playing it with! Fantastic.

And I'm fascinated by this cumbus, a banjo-like instument of which I had not previously heard:

It has 6 menstrual flux of 2 strings apiece. The Cumbus is a comparatively immature instrumentate. It was highly-developed in Istanbul in the other 1900's.


You know, the other ones.

Oh, I could go on forever. But it's late.

The difference between Microsoft and Apple.

The scrollwheel of a mouse doesn't work in Microsoft's Visual Basic for Applications (or VBA to its friends). This is just odd. It works perfectly well in every Office application, but try to edit an Office macro and it's disabled. It's incredibly annoying.

Having gotten heartily sick of this, it occurred to me that there might be a fix for it, so off I went a-searching. And yes, there is, from Microsoft themselves:

Add support for the scroll wheel to the Microsoft Visual Basic for Applications 6 environment

When you use the Microsoft Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) 6 integrated development environment (IDE) — also referred to as the Visual Basic Editor — to add or edit a macro or module in your Microsoft Office 2003 program, the scroll wheel on your mouse might not function. That's because VBA is based on the Microsoft Visual Basic 6 IDE, which does not include built-in support for the scroll wheel.


I love the way this is offered as if it's some sort of an explanation: This bit of our application doesn't work because it's built around another of our applications which doesn't work either. It's almost as if it isn't quite our fault. Note that this same explanation would work for every bug in every program ever. The Z key doesn't work when you're using Word, you say? Oh, that's just because Word is based on a program that doesn't support the Z key. Hope that helps.

Anyway.

You can use the technique discussed here to add support for the scroll wheel to VBA 6.


In short, you download a handful of files, register one of them, turn on a switch in VBA, and presto hey: it just works.

But why the hell is this necessary? It's easy to do — took me maybe four minutes — so one has to wonder why Microsoft don't do it themselves. Surely it would be easier for them to fix the damn application than it was to build a webpage telling us how to do it. After all, they have to do something similar for every other function of every application they build: the scrollwheel only works in all those other applications because there's a special scrollwheel file sitting somewhere on your hard drive, registered and switched on. Same goes for the keyboard, the screen, the DVD-drive, even the on/off switch of the PC: they all work because there's a file on your PC which makes them work. So why, in just this one case, do we, the users, need to install the Microsoft files which make the scrollwheels on our Microsoft mouses work in this Microsoft Application?

Ach, at least it didn't insist that I restart the machine.

Meanwhile, to use a PC keyboard on an Apple Mac, all you need to do is plug it in, download and pay for this rather nifty application, spend a while figuring our how to program the damn thing, and go: it just works.

Thursday, September 20

Lies, damn lies, and bloody idiots.

In my experience, the problem with statistics is not so much that they are regularly prodded by purveyors of half-truths — after all, such shenanigans can be discovered and exposed — but that they are accepted so uncritically by people with no real intention of being dishonest. It's much more difficult to debunk a lie when it has no liars in its origins.

What the hell am I on about now? Well, here's a for instance. The Hotel and Catering Industry Training Board once asked one of their staff to perform a study into recruitment and staffing. He duly conducted a load of surveys and discovered, perhaps interestingly, that a large number of graduates were working as hotel porters. This, of course, was mainly because they were going on to do post-graduate academic work and were earning a bit of easy money over Summer or during a gap year or while studying. But the thing is, that last sentence is the result of common sense, not statistical analysis; it is the result of criticising, not accepting, a perfectly true statistic that makes too little sense. The HCITB employee in question didn't do this; he simply stuck all his data through his stats rules and presented his conclusions to the board, recommending, among other things, a vigorous graduate recruitment program to meet the industry's needs for hotel porters over the coming years. For this, he was rightly fired. True story.

A lot more damage is done to the reputation of the discipline of statistics by this common failure to factor in the thought that what you're measuring is usually too messy to be measured in the way you'd like. See also the profoundly held belief among too many statisticians that the effects of intentional acts can be measured in the same way as the effects of blind chance.

Anyway, 6 out of 10 Britons would rather die than exercise, according to The Mail:

Six out of 10 Britons would not be motivated to do more exercise even if their lives depended on it, a poll has found.


Pick a hundred Britons at random. Place them in a narrow alleyway with high walls. Drive a truck with electrified razor-sharp spikes welded to its front down the alleyway towards them at 6 mph. Apparently, only forty of your subjects will run away.

I realise they have an agenda to push and that they have our best interests at heart, but that's no excuse for the British Heart Foundation to be publishing such utter bollocks. And, even allowing for the number-blindness of your typical journalist, was there really no-one on The Mail's staff who thought to question this? Nah, it's in a poll, so it must be true.

Monday, September 17

Run in fear.

Earthquake? Volcano? Alien invasion? Worse: an economist has made a prediction. Thing is, even The Telegraph, who have published said prediction, aren't entirely sure what it is.

Alan Greenspan warns of UK house prices drop


warns the headline, but the article itself says that

He warns of "difficulties" ahead for UK home owners, as rising interest rates bring house price growth to a shuddering halt.


Shuddering aside (and I'd love to see the graph of that), which is it? Are house prices going to go down or merely cease to go up? Since the journalist who writes the article very rarely gets to write the headline, it's a good rule of thumb to trust the article. So house prices are going to cease to rise. Since insanely rising house prices are one of the biggest economic problems facing Britons today, this is Good News. Even if they were to go down a bit — ten percent, say, or even twenty — most houses would still be realistically unaffordable to most Britons, and most of us would still have to get in debt up to our eyeballs for forty years in order to have a decent place to live.

Look at it this way. The value of my house has tripled in under three years. Yes, some of that is due to improvements we've made, but obviously not most of it: we haven't built an underground Olympic swimming pool or a heliport. Yet. And that's a fairly typical increase round our way. If house prices were to drop by a massive fifty percent UK-wide next week, that would still leave our house having gone up in price by fifty percent in three years, which is a massive increase by any reasonable standard.

It's good and right that the value of a house should go up when that house is improved. It's reasonable that the value of all houses should go up roughly in line with average pay increases. But neither of those things have been happening in the UK for many years now. House prices go up simply because houses are things whose prices go up. That certainly can't go on forever, and it will stop. And, when it does, the housing market can begin the long road back to something approaching sanity.

Says it all, really.

MRSA latest:

[Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary,] says he is determined to ensure that patient safety is a priority in the NHS.


In most of the world's hospitals — including the cash-strapped understaffed electricityless ones in the middle of Third-World hell-holes — patient safety is a priority. In most of the world, the mere presence of doctors and nurses is enough to ensure that patient safety is a priority. It's taken as read.

In the NHS, the Health Secretary feels the need to announce it. As if it's something new.

I feel like I should be wearing a tri-cornered hat.

Of all the things I never thought I'd see in Britain in my lifetime, a run on a bank? Incredible. What's next? A gin craze?

Thursday, September 6

Tories and Conservatism.

Peter Oborne gives a perfect example of the problem with the British Conservative Party:

Sir Patrick Cormack, a Conservative Party backbencher, invited me to his room. He wanted to ask what questions he should put to a government minister who would soon be giving evidence on Zimbabwe to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons, of which he was a member.

So I told Cormack about a strange event that had occurred the previous month. President Mugabe had been invited to Paris by President Chirac for a summit meeting. This example of European approval of a barbarous dictator caused uproar.

When Downing Street was asked about the episode, it gave the impression to reporters that it had neither been consulted nor informed, while ministers spoke out angrily against the invitation.

In fact I was able to show Cormack evidence that the British government had known all along about the invitation, raised not the slightest objection, that its protestations of ignorance were false, and that the angry pronouncements by ministers were no better than a cynical device. I suggested to Cormack that he should expose this wretched business at the Foreign Affairs Committee, and offered to draft him a list of questions.

Sir Patrick gazed around his large and beautifully appointed Commons office. He looked appalled. "Oh, I could never do that," he stated. "It might embarrass the Government."


Even by the standards of a man who devotes a large amount of time to slagging off the Tories, DumbJon has outdone himself:

Both the Tories and the left have an interest in passing off the Tories as the antonym of Leftism: you either have the collectivist insanity of socialism, or you have the Tory Party, aka the Legion D'Entitled, the smug, sneering, snobbish collection of over-privileged degenerates, wasters and amoral weasels, looking down their nose at the ordinary, decent working people of this country. The only reason half these morons are even in the Tory Party in the first place is the lurking fear that if they joined Labour, they might have to sit next to a Scouser.


I can't emphasise enough how good it is to see the Tories' monopoly over the right-wing parts of the British electorate slipping away. May they never recover.

Tuesday, September 4

Thorough incompatibility.

Thorough incompatibility appears to be what English has with Chinese. Exhibit A: the time sex thing.

This label shows a disposable coffee cup and a bilingual legend whose English half is "A TIME SEX THING". But it's not from the cover of a racy new novel about coffee-break quickies among over-scheduled young Hong Kong investment bankers. Nor is it from the latest CD by the Shanghai rockers Assembly Line Love Machine. It's not even the lead-in to a shocking tabloid exposé of caffeine-fueled Olympic stopwatch-fetishism in the Beijing elite. No, it's a word-by-word mistranslation into English, apparently without ironic intent ...

The correct literal translation of the Chinese phrase should be something like "daily use article for single use." More loosely, one might say simply "disposable cup."


One might think it was pretty tough to outdo that, at least by accident. Step forward, Cisco, with their downright interesting-sounding new ethernet switch.

The Ethernet switch tool reach 5/8/16/24 10/100Mbps from accommodative a works port, is an ideal product to establish small scaled, medium-sized or large network need, establish for the demand exclusively the fleetness link to take with the breadth ministrant work set but design, match theIEEE802.3. Ethernet completely with the IEEE802.3u Fast Ethernet standard. Can provide the ability of the fast ether in 10/100Mbps net, take each work a breadth for or table's top computer offering whole network taking breadth, dissolves conjunction serves hour the bottleneck, and can is current the customer 10/100Mbps a work a function for linking a fast ether lord fucking net ascending, suiting different demand in various situations, can to a large extent increasing network with dependable.


And quite right, too: without dependable would be useless.

In other news, the French are annoyed that everyone's speaking English these days.

Tuesday, August 7

A message to commuters.

If you want to have a loud chat, please find someone else who's already having a chat and sit near them. Please do not walk the length of the train looking for someone who's trying to read a book and sit next to them.


Every. Bloody. Time.

Friday, August 3

So boycott Israel, already.

This article by Charles Moore is absolutely superb and I recommend you read it, but what I really want to draw attention to here is yet another brilliant but anonymous comment — The Telegraph don't provide links to comments, so you'll need to scroll down manually (how Twencen!): it was posted by "me" on June 5 at 7:56PM:

There are many ways you can make a personal sacrifice with your anti-Israel boycott.

Most of Windows operating systems were developed by Microsoft-Israel. So set a personal example. Throw away your computer!

The Pentium NMX Chip technology was designed at Intel in Israel. Both the Pentium 4 microprocessor and the Centrium processor were entirely designed, developed and produced in Israel.

Voice mail technology was developed in Israel.

The technology for the AOL Instant Messenger ICQ was developed in 1996 in Israel by four young Israeli whiz kids.

Both Microsoft and Cisco built their only R & D facilities outside the U.S. in Israel.

So due to your complete boycott of anything Israeli, you now have poor health and no computer. But your bad news does not end there. Get rid of your cellular phone! Cell phone technology was also developed in Israel by Motorola, which has its biggest development center in Israel. Most of the latest technology in your mobile phone was developed by Israeli scientists.

Feeling unsettled? You should be. Part of your personal security rests with Israeli inventiveness, borne out of our urgent necessity to protect and defend our lives from the terrorists you support.

A phone can remotely activate a bomb, or be used for tactical communications by terrorists, bank robbers or hostage-takers. It is vital that official security and law enforcement authorities have access to cellular jamming and detection solutions. Enter IsraelĂ­s Netline Communications Technologies with their security expertise to help the fight against terror.

A joint, non-profit, venture between Israel and Maryland will result in a five-day Business Development and Planning Conference next March. Selected Israeli companies will partner with Maryland firms to provide innovation to the U.S. need for homeland security.


Quite.

I'd love the UK's academics and trades union members to demand a ban on mobile phones and personal computers and to insist that our police refuse to use Israeli technology when defusing bombs — it's always nice to know where people stand — but, like so many of these things, it's just a puerile stance for the self-righteous to adopt. They wouldn't dream of making any genuine sacrifice for their cause.

I am reminded of sitting in a student council meeting at university. I wasn't a member, but was there now and then in order to get things done. Like most students' unions, ours banned all Nestle products, which I'm sure was a great worry to Nestle. Nestle, you see, sell baby milk formula in the Third World, and a lot of Third-World countries have a lot of different languages. All Nestle's baby formula packaging has the usual blurb that breast-feeding is better for your baby than bottled formula, but that blurb isn't always in every single language spoken in a given country. And some of the formula is given away free to new mothers, some of whom can't or don't read the packaging and so don't breast-feed, and then cannot afford to buy the stuff once the free supply runs out. Apparently, this is so unutterably evil that no British left-winger has bought a Fruit Pastille for about twenty years now.

Meanwhile, emphysema and other diseases caused by smoking are now killing two-thousand people a day in China and are predicted to wipe out a third of China's population. Tobacco firms invest heavily in China. When you buy a packet of cigarettes, you are contributing directly to the massive marketing budget that has succeeded in creating what is likely to become the greatest cause of death in China's history.

So, as I was saying, this anti-Israel boycott reminds me of sitting in a student council meeting, surrounded by chain-smokers earnestly discussing the terrible controversy of the Union's shop having accidentally sold a couple of Walnut Whips.

Very nicely put.

An excellent piece by Daniel Hannan in The Telegraph:

An oil strike could well be the worst thing that can happen to a country. By giving the regime an independent income stream, it breaks the link between taxation and representation. States that do not depend on a single natural resource can develop free economies, in which property rights are adjudicated by independent courts. But states where there is one overwhelming source of wealth tend to become oligarchies, whose leaders squabble to get their hands on fabulous riches.

....

So, a piece of advice to the Scottish Nationalist Party leader, Alex Salmond, who is about to publish his plans for an independence referendum. Stop droning on about the £200 billion of oil revenue that you think a separate Scottish state should have received. Scotland has suffered enough from subventions.

Scots, like other Britons, are a restless, mercantile, inventive people. They rose by relying on themselves, not by trusting their leaders to sign back-room deals with multinationals.

 

Wednesday, August 1

It never goes out of fashion.

In response to my post about Bruce Schneier's article about terrorism, one Wolfie has this to say:

I might be wrong but I'm guessing that Bruce Schneier is Jewish so it seems not entirely surprising that his understanding of terrorism is stunted or simplistic. He's been spoon-fed simplistic prejudice on terrorist motivation from the cradle.


It's true what people say: Jew-hatred really is more interesting than other types of racism. I mean, as we all know, Arabs and Muslims are demonised as evil killers by the Jew-controlled media and the Jew-controlled governments of the West, and all the Jews are in on it. But when a man with a suspicious-looking E-I in his surname says that he thinks that that demonisation is wrong, that just goes to show that he's just like all the other bloody Jews.

Tuesday, July 31

An experiment.

So, here's a scientific study purporting to show that Americans are self-centred. That's a new one.

Rugged American individualism could hinder our ability to understand other peoples' point of view, a new study suggests.

And in contrast, the researchers found that Chinese are more skilled at understanding other people's perspectives, possibly because they live in a more "collectivist" society.


Nice slipping-in of the word "possibly" there. What the researcher, Boaz Keysar, is saying is that his team have made an interesting discovery about the different behaviour of people from different cultures and have no idea what causes that difference, but, let's face it, it's probably that those bloody Americans are insufficiently Socialist, isn't it? The self-centred Capitalist bastards.

But has Keysar really made a particularly interesting discovery? Hmm.

The study, though oversimplified compared to real life, was instructive. Keysar and his colleagues arranged two blocks on a table so participants could see both. However, a piece of cardboard obstructed the view of one block so a "director," sitting across from the participant, could only see one block.

When the director asked 20 American participants (none of Asian descent) to move a block, most were confused as to which block to move and did not take into account the director's perspective. Even though they could have deduced that, from the director's seat, only one block was on the table.

Most of the 20 Chinese participants, however, were not confused by the hidden block and knew exactly which block the director was referring to. While following directions was relatively simple for the Chinese, it took Americans twice as long to move a block.


What is truly amazing about this result is that the only conclusion Keysar has been able to reach from his data is that Chinese are more empathetic than Americans.

What is not being considered here is the obvious fact that the participants were all well aware that the "director" was a part of the research team. If you just happen to find yourself in a room with some bloke, and he asks you to, say, hand him a book, and you can see two books but you can also see that he can only see one of them because there's a lamp or something in the way of the other, it doesn't take much deduction to figure out which one to give him. But if you know that he carefully set the room up before you arrived, that he positioned the books and the lamp, that he decided where you and he would sit in the room, and that he is testing you in some unspecified way, it's considerably less obvious: OK, you can see that he can only see one of the books, but you know full well that he knows about the other one and knows exactly where it is. And you know that these damn psychologists are testing your ability to do something or other — for all you know, it might be your ability to see or to do the non-obvious. In those circumstances, a failure to jump to conclusions would be, I'd've thought, a sign of intelligence — in fact, being slowed down by considering not only what the director can see but also what you think he probably knows would arguably be a sign of greater empathy, not less. Meanwhile, a quick reaction could simply indicate a fear of getting in serious trouble if you don't obey orders quickly enough — which would not be surprising in people used to living under a murderous dictatorship.

And then there's the wording:

the director asked [participants] to move a block


This is just some news report and could be inaccurate, but that wording kind of leaps out because it's so non-standard: "a block", not "the block". If the director really was using that wording, then that skews the experiment yet further, because we simply don't use the word "a" to describe single objects. If the director were genuinely only aware of the presence of one block, he'd say "the block"; saying "a block" would signal to the subject that he knows of at least two of them. This sort of subtlety might well not be noticed by Chinese people for whom English is not a first language. Or, if the experimenters spoke to their Chinese subjects in Chinese, we'd need to know how well that distinction between "the" and "a" translates into Chinese.

There is a brief glimmer of hope that Keysar is aware of his experiment's inadequacies:

"Of course, these are very gross oversimplifications," said Keysar.


No, really?

"Even in America, you can find collectivist societies. For example, working class people tend to be much more collective."


But no: it's not the experiment which is oversimplified; merely the idea that all Americans are selfish. Some are actually OK. And as an example, Keysar names a left-wing designated victim group. It's almost as if the guy has some other agenda or something.

Some of my best friends use the "Some of my best friends" argument.

As a rule, anyone who responds to an accusation of prejudice with any variation of "But some of my best friends are [insert victim group here]" is met with derision. But, though it can be easily shown not to be completely logically unassailable — Norm does so succinctly here — it surely does carry some weight. I mean, if I hated Poles, I'd avoid hanging out with them. Wouldn't you? And I'm sure they'd avoid me too.

Thinking about this the other day, it occurred to me that the some-of-my-best-friends argument is dismissed because it is misunderstood. It is not an all-purpose defense; it is generally used in a specific case.

Here's an example. Bill is gay. John isn't. John says something to Bill. Bill finds it offensive, and says so. Would John use the some-of-my-best-friends response here? Well, he might — never underestimate stupidity, ineloquence, and blind panic — but probably not: it doesn't make sense in such a case. If a gay man is standing in front of you, telling you that he is offended, it does no good to mention the existence of some of your gay friends. There is no reason for him to give a damn.

Now consider this one. Simon and Harry are both white. Simon says something that Harry considers to be racist towards black people, and Harry says so. Simon might well respond to Harry that he has lots of black friends — and it does make sense to do so. This is exactly the sort of situation where the some-of-my-best-friends argument usually occurs: when dealing with people who are offended on the behalf of others.

Considering that, it becomes clear that the some-of-my-best-friends argument is in fact a shorthand.

Some of my best friends are black


really means:

Some of my best friends, unlike you, are black, and I don't have to watch my mouth around them, and they, unlike you, don't think I'm a racist


or, more to the point:

You claim that what I say is deeply offensive to black people, but when I say it in front of actual real-life black people, they don't see it as a reason not to be my friend.


After all, the alternative simply makes no sense:

Some of my best friends are black, but I'm careful not to express my opinions in front of them 'cause if I did they'd hate me.


I think this much-scoffed-at argument may have a lot more weight than the scoffers realise.

Tripe.

This piece on terrorism by Bruce Schneier is very interesting — and deeply wrong in a great many ways. What I particularly wanted to comment on was this excellent example of Bush Derangement Syndrome:

Perversely, Bush's misinterpretation of terrorists' motives actually helps prevent them from achieving their goals.


It is endlessly interesting to me, the way in which the conviction shared by so many highly intelligent people that George Bush is stupid turns their intelligence off so effectively. Their absolute refusal to consider that he might ever achieve what he sets out to leads them to say things which are simply thick.

Let's, for the sake of argument, assume that everything else in Schneier's article is correct. Even then, wouldn't this make more sense?

Cunningly, Bush's misrepresentation of terrorists' motives helps prevent them from achieving their goals.


As for the rest of Schneier's argument — his conclusion is that terrorism doesn't work — most of his commenters have pointed out the flaws in his reasoning and assumptions, some at great length. Much as I'd love to join in, there's really no point, because this short and unfortunately anonymous comment cuts to the chase and blows the entire idea apart so beautifully concisely:

So if THE TERRORISTS take a deep breath, think it over and change their objective to KEEP the US in Iraq and continue bombing they will fail because terrorism doesn't work and the US will leave.

Interesting.

 

Thursday, July 26

Names.

Jon points us towards yet another example of the welfare state getting it wrong. It has all the usual ingredients: the long-term unemployed being paid so handsomely for doing nothing that they continue to do it; being penalised by the state for working; people who actually work realising that those who don't are materially wealthier.... but we know all this. What's really interesting is the names chosen by this couple for their kids.

Carl and Samantha Gillespie have twelve children: five from Samantha's first marriage and another seven from their own. Well, probably. The Mail, bless 'em, aren't quite sure.

Former book-keeper Samantha, 35, had five children from a previous relationship when she married Carl, who used to work as a door-to-door salesman. ...

The couple then had seven of their own


But, further down the same article:

Paul and Samantha have eight children together and she has four from a previous relationship, making 12 in total.


Interesting. When Samantha's husband is calling himself Paul, her fifth child is his; when his name is Carl, it isn't. These people have an odd relationship.

Anyway, as I was saying before I got distracted by The Mail's world-class sub-editors, it's the Gillespies' kids names that are interesting.

I think we tend to suspect that, when a child gets given the sort of name that a five-year-old girl would give one of her dolls, it's the mother's doing. Calling children Tixie-Wixie, Snugglebunny, Twinkle-Toes, or Plumkin just doesn't scream "bloke". Well, not until now. Step forward, Carl (or maybe Paul) Gillespie.

Former book-keeper Samantha, 35, had five children from a previous relationship when she married Carl, who used to work as a door-to-door salesman. They are Craig, 16, Adam, 14, Jack, 13, Rebekah, 11, and Harry, nine.


Good names, them. Then Samantha married Carl. And just look what happened.

The couple then had seven of their own: twins Parris-Jordan and Kesla Blu, eight; twins Mason and Peaches, six; Logan, four, and the three-year-old twins Skye and Kalifornya.


So, the question is: Did Carl choose these names? Or is it that Samantha's first boyfriend put his foot down and refused to let her give his kids crap names? Come to think of it, maybe that's why they split up. I can just see Samantha storming out of the house, shouting "I want to call my daughter Kesla Blu, and I'm going to go and find a decent man who'll let me!"

Welcome to modern Britain.