Thursday, March 11, 2010

Blog move

Now here:

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Cognitive dissonance

Mine, this time.

Political Betting suggests that opinion poll success depends on parties being in the news; recent Tory poll setbacks have been the consequence of a period of news dominance by the Labour Party.

This suggests that the more the public sees of a given group of politicians, the more they like them.

I'm reeling.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Broadband issues

Screenwriting software nowadays includes some very nice structures for collaboration online. So, there I was this morning, collaborating away in a scheduled work session with someone involved in a project I'm working on, when everything stopped functioning. I opened a web browser and saw a message from British Telecom.

My most recent BT broadband bill was issued on the 11th Feb, about two weeks ago. The screen I was looking at told me the service was suspended to show me a warning that the bill was about to go red. There was a link for me to click to acknowledge this, after which the broadband would be restored.

Great. Scheduled work session screwed.

I called BT and asked if this is a new system. Yes, it is. The woman explained that if customers didn't respond to the email they were sent, saying the bill is about to go red, then this online suspension/warning happens automatically.

I had received no email. What address was it sent to? The btconnect one they issued me years ago. In those years, I have called them at least ten times to explain I don't want their lousy email address and I have my own domain. Each time, they sent mail to my domain for a while, then reverted to the btconnect address. I don't even know what the address is any more.

So. My service switches to a new broadband supplier in ten days. And the voice line goes with it.

Rape - a case study

This has just happened to someone I know, slightly.

Less than two months into his marriage to a Turkish woman, this man was accused by her of rape. They were living in a shared flat (both in mid-twenties) and the evening of the alleged attack, after the alleged attack, she was sitting happily with her husband and their house mates, chatting until bed time. She went to bed with her husband, who had allegedly raped her earlier, made him breakfast in the morning, again interacting with housemates perfectly happily, then she disappeared, as it turned out going to the local police station to make a complaint.

About a week before making this complaint, the woman had discovered that her application for permanent residency here would be fast-tracked if she was thought to be the victim of domestic abuse. The marriage itself had been fast-tracked because she had visa problems and she needed it to stay in this country.

So, after interviewing everyone, the police knew that the woman had a motive for making a false allegation, that it had taken her 12 hours from the alleged attack to report it, during which time she was with her alleged attacker and others, happy and laughing, and that between the time of the alleged attack and the complaint she had slept with her husband without any alleged coercion and eaten two meals with him. There was no physical evidence of rape.

The police charged the man with rape.

Then the husband withdrew his support for the woman's current visa application.

She called him, it was all a mistake, she hadn't meant it, didn't know why she had spoken to the police, would withdraw her complaint. This and half a dozen other calls were recorded by the husband. She followed him around, went to his house, slept with him repeatedly, promised to withdraw the complaint - all these things entirely of her own initiative. I think he was unwise to sleep with her under these circumstances, but she is extremely good looking and he is besotted.

The police were notified that all these things had happened. The CPS decided to proceed anyway and he had to attend court and enter a plea.

Then the woman withdrew her complaint. The case has had to be withdrawn. In my view, if the alleged offence had been anything other than rape, no charges would have been brought. As it stands, I suspect that because he had actually appeared in court, this will count as a "failed" prosecution.

There might be other problems with the legal handling of rape cases, but over-prosecution is one reason why the conviction rates are low. As an ex-policeman explained it to me, nobody wants to be accused of failing to take rape seriously. The police pass the buck, to the CPS, by referring flimsy cases to them. The CPS passes the buck to the courts, and the courts then have to acquit in situations where no prosecution should ever have been brought. Then the courts get blamed for this apparently high acquittal rate.

In this case, there might also be an example of the Law of Unforeseen Consequences. Fast-tracking residency claims for abused women of foreign origin who find themselves in abusive marriages here, dependent on the abusive husband for their visa, is an excellent idea, in principle. Where people do not freely choose their own spouses, for cultural reasons, this might be a problem that requires action. But the unforeseen consequence of the action that has actually been taken, the fast-tracking of residency applications, is that it has created an incentive for false claims of abuse.

New hockey stick graph

Click image to see full size.

By Zombie

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Mildly interesting

Ever tried to open a local file in Google Chrome? Eh? I fell back to Firefox.

The mandatory Darius Guppy post

Now, I see Guppy has been in The Telegraph. The thing is, um... that is... eyes feel heavy... I ...


Hmmm? What? Ah. Sorry. I must have dozed off and fallen face first into the keyboard.

© P. J. O'Rourke

Fettered democracy

Good post from Squander Two. Two related points from it:

I'm all for constraining democracy within awkward undemocratic boundaries, as, for instance, the USA's system does. Imagine how much better British governance could be if the Deputy Prime Minister were always the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister were forced to work with him.)
And, possibly more tongue-in-cheek:
Anyway, the whole point of the Northern Ireland Assembly is that the views of all Northern Ireland's political factions are represented, to encourage them to get involved in democratic politics rather than terrorism. So, by its very definition, the Assembly is supposed to contain at least one member who approves of this bombing. When every member of the Assembly condemns this attack, what that demonstrates is that they've set up the Assembly wrong.

The view from UEA

According to The Telegraph:

In a submission to Parliament's Science and Technology Committee, which is investigating the disclosure of climate data from the unit, the university said it ''strongly rejected'' accusations that it had manipulated or selected figures to exaggerate global warming.

The university also denied suggestions that it had breached Freedom of Information rules by refusing to release raw data.

And it insisted the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) had not lost any primary data gathered from monitoring stations around the world.

According to the submission, allegations that scientists hid flaws and research findings were the result of misunderstandings of technical jargon or statistical analysis.
On the other hand, I have been contacted by someone in the University, who tells me of a lecturer there in a scientific discipline, who told her students "that there were now nearly 50 people employed by the CRU (up from 5 or 6 10-15 years ago) and that, for them denying climate change would be like turkeys voting for christmas."

My source added: "There seems to be a general scepticism among students... I think UEA on the whole is standing by the "we did nothing wrong" line."

"We" being those staff not employed by the CRU.

I think it's unlikely that the UEA will throw the CRU under the bus, but less unlikely than it seemed before I received that communication.

If anyone finds this googling and has anything to add, I do preserve anonymity of sources.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Keeping in touch with customers using SMS

My replacement mobile broadband modem arrived today, which is nice. An hour later, I received a text from the supplier, telling me that the replacement modem was now ready for despatch and would be with me in 3 to 5 days. A few minutes after that, another text told me they had received the faulty modem, which is sitting on my windowsill waiting to be posted, and giving me a url where I can track the repair.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Avient Air in Venezuela

The above photograph was taken in Venezuela yesterday. It shows a McDonnell Douglas MD11 coming in to land at Barcelona airport. The livery is that of Avient Air.

Avient is a controversial company. Based in Wiltshire and run by former British Army officer Andrew Smith, their activities in Africa were highlighted by Amnesty in 2003 here:

In the government-controlled area of DRC , the UN found that a mining company, Oryx Natural Resources, had a close working relationship with Avient Air, a military company which supplies services and equipment to the Zimbabwean and DRC military.
The UN found a record of a payment in September 2001 of US$35,000 from the Oryx account at Banque Belgolaise to Avient Ltd., Avient Air’s sister company based in the United Kingdom.
In April 2002, Avient Air brokered the sale of six attack helicopters to the DRC government. Under the management of a former British army captain, Avient Air had been contracted to organize bombing raids into eastern DRC in 1999 and 2000. At the same time Avient Air organized logistics and transportation of mining equipment for Sengamines – a partly Zimbabwean-owned venture which is closely associated with the Zimbabwe Defence Force (ZDF) and in which Oryx Natural Resources is a shareholder – and was granted exclusive rights to two of DRC’s richest diamond concessions in 1999 by the then DRC President, Laurent-Désiré Kabila.
And here:
Another example is the Zimbabwean company, Avient, with management links to the UK, which was reported to have hired Russian aircraft and air crew to support the government of Laurent Kabila in the Congo with “air drops”, and also admitted to repairing and maintaining Russian MIG fighters for the Kabila regime.
In October 2002, a report of the United Nations Security Council accused two UK residents, John Bredenkamp and Andrew Smith, of illegally providing services and military equipment to the Zimbabwean Defence Force (ZDF) for use in the DRC. The UN said that Bredenkamp, a Zimbabwean businessman and one of the richest people in the UK,217with a personal fortune estimated at £720 million, was breaching EU and British sanctions against Zimbabwe through his arms brokering company Aviation Consultancy Services (ACS), in which he holds an active investment.218

ACS had offices in South Africa, Zimbabwe and the UK, and has worked with Smith’s company Avient Air. According to the UN, ACS has acted as a representative for major European arms contractors such as Agusta of Italy and BAE Systems of the UK. In the early 1980s, BAE supplied 12 Hawk jets to the Zimbabwe Defence Force (ZDF). But the UK and the EU respectively imposed an arms embargo on the country in May 2000 and February 2002. Contrary to those arms embargoes, the UN Report alleged that BAE spare parts for the ZDF Hawk jets, worth $3 million, were supplied by ACS in 2002. In addition, the UN obtained copies of invoices from Raceview Enterprises, a company controlled by Bredenkamp, for deliveries worth $3.5 million of camouflage cloth, batteries, fuels and lubricating oil, boots and rations.
And subsequently in a number of questions in the Lords in 2003:
The Lord Avebury—To ask Her Majesty’s Government what response they have made to the allegations against a United Kingdom-based company, Avient Limited, in Annex 3 of the initial United Nations Expert Panel report on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, published in October 2002. [FCO] (HL4881)

The Lord Avebury—To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they had prior knowledge of contracts between the United Kingdom-based company, Avient Limited, and the governments of Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo to supply military services, as claimed by Mr Andrew Smith, a director of the company. [FCO] (HL4882)

The Lord Avebury—To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will give the dates and subjects of discussions between representatives of the United Kingdom-based company Avient Limited and the United Kingdom High Commission in Harare. [FCO] (HL4883)

The Lord Avebury—To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they informed Rights and Accountability in Development and its Congolese partner, Action contre l’impunité pour les droits humains, that they had been accepted as complainants against the United Kingdom-based company, Avient Ltd, in respect of alleged violations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s guidelines for multinational enterprises. [FCO] (HL4924)

The Lord Avebury—To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will give further details of the operations by an MI 24 attack helicopter in the Democratic Republic of Congo, said by the United Kingdom-based company Avient Limited to have been involved in the relief of isolated places; and what steps were taken by the National Contact Point for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Guidelines to obtain independent corroboration of the company’s account of the use made of this machine. [FCO] (HL4980)
A report in 2006, in the Sunday Times, added detail:
Under a crewing agreement [Andrew] Smith had signed with General Joseph Kabila, the future president of the Congo, on September 21, 1999, Avient undertook to provide aircrew who would “operate along and behind the enemy lines in support of ground troops and against the invading forces”.

Pelham claims he found that Ukrainian and Russian aircrews recruited by Avient on behalf of the Congolese airforce were flying blanket bombing raids that in all probability were killing and maiming civilians caught in the war zone thousands of feet below.

Rudimentary bombs made from industrial gas cylinders filled with TNT were being rolled out of the backs of giant Antonov transport aircraft flown at high altitude in indiscriminate raids, according to Pelham.

The crewing agreement signed by Smith and Kabila noted that Avient was acting as an “intermediary to facilitate the supply” of aircrew and said the company could not be held accountable for the individual performance of crew members.

Pelham says that the reality was different. He alleges that Avient was providing crews for aircraft involved in military activities, including Antonovs and an MI-24 attack helicopter gunship, and that Smith knew what they were doing.
In 2008, Avient was accused of helping import Chinese arms into Zimbabwe. There was a fascinating comments thread at This is Zimbabwe at the time. Scroll down to comment 29 and later.

The earlier allegations against Avient were investigated (.doc) by the DTI, as it was at the time, and rejected after the UN failed to offer any evidence.

I emailed Avient to ask what one of their planes was doing in Venezuela and, after complying with a request that I supply my home address and telephone numbers to them, I received the following mail from Andrew Smith. I had of course made it clear in advance that I would publish our correspondence:
Dear Mr Risdon

I am aware of the various accusations which have been made and they are all unfounded,

The authorities including Customs from whom we receive permission to load and depart from Europe are responsible for supervising the export of all goods.

Since the aircraft was loaded in Copenhagen International Airport for a flight to Venezuela, you can be assured nothing was untoward. The Freight Forwarder involved is Major Multinational Organisation, and that is whom we have contracted with to carry this cargo for the oil industry

Thank you for providing your details, should you feel inclined to take further interest may I suggest you direct your enquiries to the Customs Authorities in Copenhagen.

Yours sincerely

Andrew Smith
The suggestion that the cargo was related to the oil industry is plausible. Barcelona is probably the best-placed airport in Venezuela for goods destined for the Orinoco oil belt, one of the largest oil sand deposits in the world, and one that is moving into large scale production at the moment.

Avient has a strong presence in Zimbabwe, indeed it is sometimes described as a Zimbabwean company. I don't imagine it could have hurt their chances of getting this sort of contract that Chavez regards Mugabe as his "brother".

Africa watchers tend to pay special attention if Avient's livery is spotted in a trouble spot. Given Chavez's penchant for sabre rattling, I'd say this situation is worth monitoring.

And I wonder what the usual supporters of the Venezuelan regime would have to say if a business with these sorts of currents swirling round it were flying into, say, Israel with supplies.

James Paice MP on libel reform

I just received this email from Mr Paice, my MP (and generally one of the good guys):

Dear Mr Risdon,
Thank you for writing to me about EDM 423 and libel law reform. I should explain that Early Day Motions are for backbench MPs and therefore as a Member of the Opposition Frontbench, I am usually unable to sign an EDM regardless of my views, unless it has been officially tabled by the Opposition.
I understand your concerns on this issue. It is important that those who contribute so much to research and culture in this country do not feel restricted from publishing intellectually challenging and informative articles. Fear of libel action should not curb debate by scientists, academics and journalists. Freedom of expression is the hallmark of a free society, and must be strongly protected.
If libel cases do succeed, the costs are often so crippling to defendants that even large newspapers are in difficulty in resisting some claims. It is evident that Britain has become an attractive place for individuals to bring about speculative libel action since lawyers will often bear the brunt of the costs in exchange for the potential awards available to winning litigants.
You may be aware that the Secretary of State for Justice, the Rt. Hon. Jack Straw MP, has recently announced that the Government is currently drawing up plans to alter libel law. Let me assure you that my colleagues on the Shadow Justice Team will continue to press the Government on this issue, to ensure that any changes to the law adequately protect individuals without placing too great a burden on, for example, scientists, academics and journalists.
Thank you for taking the time to write to me.
Yours sincerely,

James Paice, MP
Promising, I'd say.


Another email from the libel reform campaign:

Dear Friends,

We’re grabbing this chance while we have a quiet 10 minutes to give
you a bit of advance notice of the biggest, most important, and
hopefully the funniest, event in the libel campaign so far this year.

Later on today we are going to publicly announce ‘The Big Libel
Gig’ when some of the biggest names in UK comedy, science and human
rights will be sharing a stage to tell us that England’s libel laws
are unjust, against the public interest and need to be reformed.
‘The Big Libel Gig’ is at the Palace Theatre in London’s West
End at 7.30 pm on Sunday 14th March 2010.

There will be a very eclectic line-up of famous names including Dara
Ó Briain, Robin Ince, Tim Minchin, Shappi Khorsandi, Marcus
Brigstocke, Ed Byrne, Professor Brian Cox and Professor Richard

The Big Libel Gig will also include a chance to hear from Drs Ben
Goldacre, Simon Singh and Peter Wilmshurst, who have all felt the full
force of England’s libel laws. They’ll talk frankly about how the
libel laws have affected them personally.

This is a one-off benefit event to raise money for the libel reform
campaign being run by the Coalition for Libel Reform, established by
the charities Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense About
Science. If you can’t make the gig, other ways to support the
campaign include donating through the dedicated JustGiving page
or email for more information.

Tickets are now on sale from|artist=the+big+libel+gig&filler1=see&filler2=BLG

, at the theatre’s Box Office in person and by telephone on 0844
4124657. This has not yet been announced publicly, so beat the rush,
buy the best seats in the house and support libel reform.

We look forward to seeing you at the campaign’s most important,
funny, thought-provoking and staggering event of the year so far.


Mike & Síle

The Libel Reform Coalition

The Libel Reform Campaign is a coalition of English PEN, Index on
Censorship and Sense About Science.

So far, 197 MPs have signed our Parliamentary Early Day Motion
calling for libel reform and the Justice Secretary Jack Straw has
formed a working party that the Libel Reform Coalition is represented
Marcus Brigstocke?

Quote of the Day

From Eric Raymond, in a post titled Who bears the cost of moral vanity:

I was born and educated into the class that produces “gentry liberals”, but I’ve come to loathe them. This is why. It’s always someone else who pays the cost of their posturing. Very often, it’s the people they claim to be helping: the black teenager who ends up in a drug posse because because minimum-wage laws would force the small businessmen in his ‘hood to take a loss if they hired him for a legal job; the coal miner who gets pneumoconiosis because nuclear-plant construction was strangled in environmental red tape; the woman found in an alley strangled with her own pantyhose, because the handgun she could have shot that rapist with was denied her by force of law.

They’re so very, very convinced of their moral superiority, they are. The pious anti-torture crusaders, the “economic-justice” cod-Marxists, the no-growth environmentalists, the gun banners, and all their kin in the tribe of wealthy white left-liberals. Armored by their certitudes and their sheepskins and their class privileges, they sail serenely above the deadly consequences of their meddling. Not for them any need to worry about second-order effects or process costs or who actually pays the cost for their delusions, oh, no. They are the anointed, and lofty intentions are their sovereign excuse however much damage they do.

Truly, I hate them all. Perhaps I hate them more intensely because I so narrowly escaped being one of them. But it’s really the invincible stupidity and myopia that gets me, and the way their “compassion” stinks of narcissism. If I could have just one wish, it would be this: let their folly come back on their own heads.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Physician, heal thyself

Mick Hartley is, as usual, spot on in his criticism of a recent Peter Singer piece. But what strikes me is that Singer, a Professor of Philosophy, has committed a simple logical error when he asks:

Why do people give generously to earthquake victims, but not to prevent the much larger number of deaths caused by poverty?
Singer is begging the question. He is assuming that giving money to disaster relief is functionally similar to giving money to alleviate poverty when this is in fact a case he has to argue.

A simple, well known, logical error. How strange, from someone in his profession.

Self defence

A characteristic snark from Blood and Treasure:

Incidentally, I believe this is in line with current Tory policy on reasonable self defence.
"This" being a BBC report:
A Russian farmer has been convicted of planting landmines around his field to ward off trespassers.
Bovine partisanship aside, for of course Tories are no more likely to approve of this than Labour voters (which is to say some of each might but not many), what would be a reasonable legal position when it comes to the situation a householder might face when waking at night, alone, in an isolated farmhouse, and hearing sounds from downstairs?

I don't see why the householder, as a result of someone else deciding to break into their house, should be expected to accept any form of risk to their personal safety. There's no reason why they should have to get into a fight that is in any way fair. That is, a fight the burglar has an even chance of winning. The only sort of force that is reasonable in these circumstances is overwhelming force, force that keeps the householder as safe as they were asleep in bed before anyone broke in.

The only test that should apply is whether or not they were still at risk when applying the force. So if a burglar is running at them, screaming, the householder should be able to shoot them without suffering any repercussions. If a burglar is running away from the householder, screaming, then to shoot and kill would be murder, to shoot and wound would be assault.

This approach would have been of little help to Tony Martin, who shot and killed a burglar who was running away.

Simon Singh's weird idea

An email arrives from the libel reform campaign:

Dear Friends,

I’ve had an idea – an unusual idea, but I think it might just

As you know, England’s chilling libel laws need to be reformed. One
way to help achieve this is for 100,000 people to sign the petition
for libel reform before the political parties write their manifestos
for the election. We have 17,000 signatures, but we really need
100,000, and we need your help to get there.

My idea

My idea is simple: if everyone who has already signed up persuades
just one more person each week to sign the petition then we will reach
our goal within a month!

One person per week is all we need, but please spread the word as
much as you can. In fact, if you persuade 10 people to sign up then
email me (
) and I promise to thank you by printing your name in my next book
… which I will start writing as soon as I have put my own libel case
behind me. I cannot say when this will be, but it is a very real
promise. My only caveat is that I will limit this to the first
thousand people who recruit ten supporters.

When persuading your friends remember to tell them:

(a) English libel laws have been condemned by the UN Human Rights

(b) These laws gag scientists, bloggers and journalists who want to
discuss matters of genuine public interest (and public health!).

(c) Our laws give rise to libel tourism, whereby the rich and the
powerful (Saudi billionaires, Russian oligarchs and overseas
corporations) come to London to sue writers because English libel laws
are so hostile to responsible journalism. (In fact, it is exactly
because English libel laws have this global impact that we welcome
signatories to the petition from around the world.)

(d) Vested interests can use their resources to bully and intimidate
those who seek to question them. The cost of a libel trial in England
is 100 times more expensive than the European average and typically
runs to over £1 million.

(e) Three separate ongoing libel cases involve myself and two medical
researchers raising concerns about three medical treatments. We face
losing £1 million each. In future, why would anyone else raise similar
concerns? If these health matters are not reported, then the public is
put at risk.

My experience has been sobering. I’ve had to spend £100,000 to
defend my writing and have put my life on hold for almost two years.
However, the prospect of reforming our libel laws keeps me cheerful.

Thanks so much for your support. We’ve only got one shot at this
– so I hope you can persuade 1 (or maybe 10) friends, family and
colleagues to sign.

Massive thanks,


The Libel Reform Campaign is a coalition of English PEN, Index on
Censorship and Sense About Science.

So far, 188 MPs have signed our Parliamentary Early Day Motion
calling for libel reform and the Justice Secretary Jack Straw has
formed a working party that the Libel Reform Coalition is represented

Please also considering donating to keep our campaign going:

Irony alert

Sunny Hundal:

People reading political blogs generally seem to hate nuanced positions, but I’m going to try anyway. For that it’s likely I’ll get slammed by both sides but that’s fine. I need to get this out of my system.
And later in the same piece:
Nick Cohen is also having a go – the very same who on record as supporting the torture of detainees in certain circumstances, and has wrongly criticised feminists themselves in the past. With friends like these…
If you follow those links, you'll not see Nick Cohen supporting the torture of detainees, nor being wrong about feminists (all of them, Sunny?). But you will see him making arguments that are, well... nuanced. Too nuanced for Sunny, unfortunately.

Surface stations

I just left this comment at John Graham-Cumming's blog. The Neo-Nazi revisionist bit refers to his use of the term "denier", which is always contemptible. The bit I've bolded is the important point:

Noise and uncertainty simply exist, for scientists and laity alike (comparing Freeman Dyson to a Neo-Nazi revisionist is unworthy of you). Pretending certainty that does not exist is not scientific, though it is the province of the fanatic.

People you call sceptics - a term of approval in a sane world - are not trading in obfuscation, but rather in terms of broad, sweeping issues. Without proxies, we can't reconstruct the historical record. Without a good measured temperature record, we can't calibrate proxies. We do not have a good directly-measured temperature record. This is not some niggly detail.

UPDATE: It looks as though jgc does not want to publish this comment. It's not on his site yet, though a later comment from someone else has appeared. Going out to bat for climate milleniarism does unfortunate things to people.

Monday, February 15, 2010

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Friday, February 12, 2010


One of the areas of dissonance between right and left is the meaning of the word "cooperation". For the right, it means something voluntary but also, and this is not a contradiction, involuntary. People harvesting rubber in Malaysia are doing so voluntarily, making a living. They are cooperating, involuntarily, with those who use the rubber to sheath electrical cables in another country.

It also means something awe-inspiring, something Newton put most succinctly when he said he had stood on the shoulders of giants. Here's Bill Whittle, writing about near-disaster flying a light aircraft, and touching on both these aspects of cooperation:

How many people were there with me that day? Not just the obvious two – Dana and Craig, who’s support kept my monkey brain in the back of my head to return to throw pooh another day. How many guys were watching me on radar, keeping me separated from far, far better men and women who do this in their sleep up there? How many people did it take to make the instruments, to mine the silica for the glass, to tap the rubber for the wires? Who laid the asphalt on the runways, who built the filaments in the approach strobes, and who attached the ceramic tips to my spark plugs? And how many millions of other unseen connections had to be made to allow me to do, routinely, and on a middle-class salary, what billions of dead men and women would have given a lifetime to taste – just once. In those few minutes I just told you of, I stood on the shoulders of millions of my brothers and sisters, not the least of which were two sons of a preacher from Dayton, Ohio – now long dead but with me in sprit every day. I was atop a pyramid of dedication, hard work, ingenuity and progress, following rules written in the blood of the stupid and the brave and the unlucky.

I had tossed myself a mile into the air and landed safe in this Web of Trust.

Global warming debates

Monbiot and Plimer interviewed. An evasive Plimer simply refuses to answer a basic question. Not at all impressive:

In Australia later today, Tim Lambert and Christopher Monckton will be debating the same subject.

Physics GCSE question

Patrick posts the following on his blog:

Patrick's comment on this is exasperated rather than detailed - he has to teach this stuff. But what strikes me is that all four statements are true of all four appliances. That they all produce heat is obvious. Sound is a form of kinetic energy and they all produce sound (even the toaster and lamp). Because they all produce heat, they all produce light, even if it is just infra red in some cases. In addition, the radio has an oscillator inside it, producing radio frequencies (for tuning) - it's the oscillators in TV sets that the old TV detector vans listened out for - and radio is a form of light. Or heat. And vice versa.

I don't think anything I've just said relies on a knowledge of physics beyond GCSE level. The demarcation of heat and light and radio waves as separate types of energy is out of date by more than a century.

I know this is the first question, and is intended to put the child at ease, but it should be possible to do that and still stay within the realm of contemporary knowledge.

Make mine a double

Strong coffee might increase the risk of heart disease.

Within an hour of a single espresso, blood flow had reduced by an average of 22 per cent.
But when the volunteers drank a decaffeinated espresso, there was little or no change.
... previous studies have also highlighted coffees potential harmful effects, others point to many benefits.
Recent research showed one coffee a day could nearly halve the risk of dangerous cancers affecting the mouth and gullet, while other evidence suggest three a day can slash the risk of Alzheimers disease.
Brain function remains high, cancer risk reduced, sudden death after active life. What's not to like?

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

We are not Spartacus

My excuse is that I haven't been blogging much. Normally, I do chip in when there's a "We are all Spartacus" call on behalf of a blogger, and so do many people from left and right. Normally.

For some reason, the only places I've seen the case of the Reverend Stephen Sizer mentioned have been left of centre blogs. So, in case you haven't heard about it yet:

At 10am on Sunday 29th November 2009, I received a visit from two policemen regarding my activities in running the Seismic Shock blog. (Does exposing a vicar’s associations with extremists make me a criminal?, I wondered initially). A sergeant from the Horsforth Police related to me that he had received complaints via Surrey Police from Rev Sizer and from Dr Anthony McRoy – a lecturer at the Wales Evangelical School of Theology – who both objected to being associated with terrorists and Holocaust deniers.
Sizer then used the incident to try to intimidate another blogger:
Dear Vee,

You must take a little more care who you brand as anti-semitic otherwise you too will be receiving a caution from the police as the young former student of Leeds did recently. One more reference to me and you will be reported.

But here's what I find the most chilling part of the account:
The sergeant made clear that this was merely an informal chat, in which I agreed to delete my original blog ( but maintain my current one ( The policeman related to me that his police force had been in contact with the ICT department my previous place of study, and had looked through my files, and that the head of ICT at my university would like to remind me that I should not be using university property in order to associate individuals with terrorists and Holocaust deniers (I am sure other people use university property to make political comments, but nevermind).
An informal chat? What does that mean?

Are we to take it that if a complaint of defamation is made to them, police officers will contact a person's employer, visit that person, reach an agreement that they will delete a blog in its entirety, that they will do all this informally?

This is "informal" as in "the police have no jurisdiction"; defamation is a civil matter in which the police have no role, at least at the stage where nothing more has happened than a complaint from the aggrieved party.

Yet they still act to censor and intimidate a writer. This, entirely extra-judicial, harassment is a far greater worry than our current, infamous, libel laws. At least they involve court appearances and take place within the rule of law.


I didn't know this:

... after 9/11, people came together to hold a candle light vigil on Mohseni Square in Tehran in solidarity with the American people. They came unfortunately under attack by the regime’s thugs for doing this.
From the Iran Q&A thread at HP.

Evil oil companies spreading disinformation

Some fifteen years ago I saw a VHS video about Global Warming, produced by an environmental group in the USA. At the time, I was completely persuaded by the arguments for AGW, so I found the tape persuasive. One of the things it focussed on was a video presentation funded by evil oil barons, in which computer simulations showed how an increased level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would encourage plant growth. We looked at each other in disbelief, revolted by this "our friend Mr CO2" propaganda.

It seems the oil barons were right.

The view from Iran

This is a fascinating post at Harry's Place. Q&A with a pro-democracy Iranian in Iran. If you go there now, you can ask your own questions.

Who said this?

We need to stand up to the special interests, bring Republicans and Democrats together, and pass the farm bill immediately


Governments and public goods

In an aside, Norm writes:

Incidentally here, I am intrigued by the reactions to this of some Republican politicians - to the effect that Obama's decision is 'a crippling blow', or even 'the death march', for human space exploration. I thought government provision wasn't all that central to human accomplishment, according to some philosophies.
Extreme positions exist on both sides of this debate - that governments should do almost nothing, or not exist (anarchism and extreme Libertarianism); that everything or almost everything should be done by governments. The second position is more common than the first (and few politicians of any hue argue that they themselves should not exist) but let's leave both aside and look at the main area of the bell curve of ideas.

Here, the debate is over the appropriate limits on government activity. Public goods like law and order and defence are generally recognised as being appropriate roles for governments. The constitutional right, classical liberals and moderate Libertarians tend to assert that the state should also enforce property rights and the law of contract, without which no free market can exist*.

So what of space exploration? For Republicans, or any other advocates of limited government, to support the notion that this should be financed and managed by government, and to do so without hypocrisy, they need to be arguing that space exploration is a public good.

For the purposes of this post, it doesn't matter whether that's an argument that could or should prevail. I just want to point out that there is no necessary inconsistency or hypocrisy in the position of a small-government Republican who wants the government to fund space exploration.

Small-government Republicans are not no-government Republicans.

*A free market is simply an arena for exchange in which all parties can act in what they perceive to be their own best interests, without coercion or deceit.

Monday, February 01, 2010

There is such a thing as a free lunch.

Thanks to R for the pic.

A shared dream

Coherent exposition of the anarchist position, from The Guardian:

"We organise horizontally, there's no leaders amongst us. A misconception about anarchism is that there's no leaders. I think it's more about everyone taking a lead in doing certain stuff. This is a shared dream of many people."

Friday, January 22, 2010

Another quote of the day

Republicans must realize this evening that in America they benefit as there are only two parties. America is as fed up with them as they are with Obama. If there was a meaningful third party in the US, they would wipe the floor with both parties.
From an analysis of Scott Brown's election victory, at Iain Dale's blog.

Hmmm. There is a meaningful third party here, and we're just as fed up with them as we are with the rest of the political establishment. Yet none of the smaller parties seem poised for a breakthrough. The malaise, including low turnouts for elections, runs deeper than disillusionment with certain parties.

Quote of the day

I’m excited that I'll learn about it in open court.
Ezra Levant, writing about the latest lawfare attack against him in Canada. Read Levant's post for the context of the quote.

Adaptive systems

Interesting post here:

In a Japanese laboratory, a group of scientists is encouraging a rapidly expanding amoeba-like blob to consume Tokyo. Thankfully, the blob in question is a "slime mould" just around 20cm wide, and "Tokyo" is represented by a series of oat flakes dotted about a large plastic dish. It's all part of a study on better network design through biological principles. Despite growing of its own accord with no plan in mind, the mould has rapidly produced a web of slimy tubes that look a lot like Tokyo's actual railway network.
The slimy tubes work independently of one another, it seems:
The mould's abilities are a wonder of self-optimisation. It has no sense of forward-planning, no overhead maps or intelligence to guide its moves. It creates an efficient network by laying down plasmodia indiscriminately, strengthening whatever works and cutting back on whatever doesn't. The approach seems as haphazard as a human planner putting railway tracks everywhere, and then removing the ones that aren't performing well. Nonetheless, the slime mould's methods (or lack thereof) produced a network with comparable cost, efficiency and tolerance for faults to the planned human attempt.
The lesson here is obvious: complex adaptive systems are as efficient as planning when it comes to relatively simple problems like a city's transport routes. When the complexity of the problem is increased, complex adaptive systems continue to function, as we know because we can buy cheap pencils. There's no example of similar success in the area of planning, that I can think of.

Why did I choose pencils as an example? Over to you, Uncle Milt:

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Physics of Space Battles

... combat spacecraft would likely get around the same way the Apollo spacecraft went to the Moon and back: with orbit changes effected by discrete main-engine burns. The only other major option is a propulsion system like ion engines or solar sails, which produce a very low amount of thrust over a very long time. However, the greater speed from burning a chemical, nuclear, or antimatter rocket in a single maneuver is likely a better tactical option. One implication of rocket propulsion is that there will be relatively long periods during which Newtonian physics govern the motions of dogfighting spacecraft, punctuated by relatively short periods of maneuvering. Another is that combat in orbit would be very different from combat in "deep space," which is what you probably think of as how space combat should be – where a spacecraft thrusts one way, and then keeps going that way forever. No, around a planet, the tactical advantage in a battle would be determined by orbit dynamics: which ship is in a lower (and faster) orbit than which; who has a circular orbit and who has gone for an ellipse; relative rendezvous trajectories that look like winding spirals rather than straight lines.

Second, there are only a few ways to maneuver the attitude of a spacecraft around – to point it in a new direction...
This reminds me of how I understand sea battles were fought in the age of sail. Vessels at the mercy of the elements, wind (gravity for space ships), plotting long courses, sweeping in arcs towards each other, advantage gained by catching wind (or a lower orbit). Interesting to think of space Admirals in the future, memorising Nelson's tactics.

European Arrest Warrant

Deborah had been set up to drive a car packed with drugs from Spain to France. As she knew nothing about the drugs, the trial court cleared her of all charges, yet the prosecution appealed.

As neither Deborah nor her lawyer was informed about the appeal, no one was there to present her defence and she was convicted. She knew nothing about this until 2008 when she was arrested at Alicante airport after a family holiday. After a month on remand, the Spanish courts refused to extradite her because so many years had passed. She returned to the UK but was arrested again at Gatwick. Thankfully, the British courts agreed it would be unjust to extradite her. Yet the French refuse to remove the warrant, which means Deborah would be rearrested if she left the UK.

Although designed to deal with serious crime, EAWs are often issued for minor crimes. This puts huge pressure on the police and courts, and shipping people across Europe for petty crimes is, in itself, grossly disproportionate.
Law Society Gazette.

Test your knowledge

Of Middle Eastern politics:

16. Israel has often been accused of “ethnic cleansing” of the Arabs in the “occupied territories”. The demography bears this out, because the Arab population of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza has:
a) plummeted from 6,500,000 in 1967 to 3,000,000 in 2009;
b) plummeted from an estimated 5,000,000 in 1967 to less than 2,000,000 in 2009;
c) remained steady at 3,000,000, despite huge natural growth in the rest of the world;
d) increased at one tenth of the pace of natural population growth;
e) increased from about 750,000 in 1967 to an estimated 3,700,000 in 2009, a population growth of nearly 500% in barely more than a generation, which is one of the highest rates of increase anywhere in the world.

17. Israel has also been accused of “ethnic cleansing” of Arabs who are citizens of the state, and deliberately enforcing policies designed to keep the Arab population small. This, too, is shown by the demography, in that the Israeli Arab population has:
a) dropped from slightly over 1,000,000 (40% of the overall population) in 1948 to 750,000 (20% of the population) in 2009;
b) remained at a steady 1,000,000 from 1948 to 2009, while the overall population has increased seven-fold;
c) increased from 500,000 in 1948 to 1,000,000 in 2009, representing a drop from 35% of the overall population to just 12% in 58 years;
d) decreased steadily by 2% per year from 1948 onwards;
e) increased from 150,000 (15% of the overall population) in 1948 to about 1,420,000 (22% of the overall population) in 2009.
Via Snoopy.

Consequences of drug prohibition

The French health ministry issued a warning on Tuesday after eight people died and seven fell sick in two European countries from using heroin contaminated by anthrax.
Adulteration is one of the consequences of prohibition and the attendant impossibility of quality control.

Mass analysis

John King made an interesting observation: Scott Brown took off during the Christmas Day bombing incident and the candidates’ very different reactions to that incident.

UPDATE: CNN’s reporter says Democrats were shocked by the “rage” that has now turned against them. Did they not see the tea party protests? Ah, no. They were busy mocking. Did they not watch the two gubernatorial races in 2009? Nope. They were spinning. That’s why they’re shocked now.
Commentary Magazine.

Pic of the day

This view shows color variations in bright layered deposits on a plateau near Juventae Chasma in the Valles Marineris region of Mars.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Fifty years ago

No thaw. A little more snow last night. Cannot unfreeze kitchen tap but unfroze the waste pipe by pouring boiling water down the straight part & hanging hot water bottle over the bend. Tried to dig a hole to bury some refuse but found it impossible even with the pick. Even at 6” depth the ground is like a stone.

9 eggs.
George Orwell's diary, 19th January 1940.

UPDATE: From the entry for the 15th Jan 1940:
This must be the longest cold snap since 1916-17, when we had very similar weather (about end of February 1917).
1916 was in the previous cold cycle, in 1940 the warm period that had followed was starting to turn downwards, from its peak in the middle 1930s, into what would become the cold cycle that ended at the close of the 1970s. Interesting that Orwell noticed the period. But then, he had the mind of a scientist. From the same entry:
Today an egg rolled out of one of the houses & got frozen. On breaking it find that the white goes to a substance like jelly with bubbles in it & the yoke° goes to a consistency like that of stiff putty.

The Incredible Sulk

The name fits Charles Johnson as well as it did Heath. He's just name-calling now:

It’s looking like right wing tea party candidate Scott Brown will ride to victory on a wave of Fox News-fueled populist anger

Unintended consequences

Of alleged media bias:

Perhaps the best news for Brown, however, is the media's insistence in reporting that the race is "neck-and-neck," "too close to call," "very tight race," etc. In fact, most polls indicate a growing Brown lead.

The less potential Brown voters hear about that today, the better.


I was in Covent Garden once when a man placed a ghetto blaster on a nearby table, turned it on and started to sing. A woman appeared above, at the railings, and they performed a duet. It was wonderful and felt like an impromptu performance.

This is even better:

Last November, at the central market in Valencia, opera singers disguised as shopkeepers were selling produce at the various stalls there. Verdi's Il Travatore starts playing over the loudspeakers & they burst into song. None of the shoppers has a clue what's going on.


Brown vs Coakley

They're voting today. Polling website - which scored well during the Presidential election - is rating Brown as 3:1 favourite.

Haiti images

From Nasa: the fault line and the aftermath, from space.

Newton's apple

‘After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank tea, under the shade of some apple trees… he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. It was occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself…’
From William Stukeley's Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton's Life, online in facsimile here.

Via History Today.

The limit of scepticism

Phil Plait, who writes the Bad Astronomy blog and has just stepped down as President of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), recently linked to this account of an unusual teaching technique:

What made Dr. K memorable was a gimmick he employed that began with his introduction at the beginning of his first class:

“Now I know some of you have already heard of me, but for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar, let me explain how I teach. Between today until the class right before finals, it is my intention to work into each of my lectures … one lie. Your job, as students, among other things, is to try and catch me in the Lie of the Day.”

And thus began our ten-week course.

This was an insidiously brilliant technique to focus our attention – by offering an open invitation for students to challenge his statements, he transmitted lessons that lasted far beyond the immediate subject matter and taught us to constantly check new statements and claims with what we already accept as fact.
Plait described this as "lying for skepticism" and commented:
This is a wonderful story, and I think makes an effective teaching method. And it forces students to pay attention… while making them eager to do so!
The anecdote reminds me of a teacher I had at school. One day he came into our Medieval history lesson and asked of me, out of the blue, a very simple question, something like "When was the Battle of Hastings?" I replied, and the teacher asked "How do you know?" I pointed at a text book on the shelves and said the information was in there. "That's a secondary source," replied the teacher. "It was written in the 1960s. How did the author know?"

Both teachers were making the same point in different ways: check for yourself. Don't accept the word of an expert. Geoffrey Elton, at a talk given to my school's Historical Society, went further. History is, he argued, the essential study because it is a bulwark against tyranny. The study of history IS the process of refusing to accept the word of other people, even famous historians, even contemporary accounts of events. The habit of questioning, when applied to the present, protects us against would-be tyrants.

Now compare these attitudes with the following:
... it’s my opinion that there are severe limits on the kinds of scientific arguments into which skeptics may responsibly wade. If we’re serious about our science-based epistemology, we must be prepared to consistently defer to scientific consensus.
This last post and its conclusions have been welcomed by some from that part of the political spectrum most susceptible to climate alarmism. It was published on Yet it is entirely incompatible with the sceptical approach recommended by the teachers in the earlier examples.

For the author, and unfortunately for Phil Plait too, the limit of scepticism isn't science, or science about which the sceptical commentator is not an authority. It's climate change. With that single subject, according to the contemporary sceptical movement, scepticism is not allowed.

And that, surely, is the problem.