Friday, July 31, 2009

It would have sucked mightily

The black spot is huge, nearly 10,000 kilometers across, making it roughly the size of the Earth. It’s composed of dust, basically vaporized whatever-it-was-that-smacked-into-Jupiter. Probably an asteroid; a comet would’ve been spotted before the impact (because they are brighter), and no one saw it. The impactor itself was probably several hundred meters across, and the explosive energy release (in non-sciencey speak, the gigantic kaboom) would’ve been measured in the tens of thousands of megatons. Given that the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated on Earth was about 50 megatons, you may start to grasp the horrifying power of this event. Had it happened here, well. It wouldn’t be a global extinction event, not quite, but it would’ve sucked mightily.
The Bad Astronomy blog, on the recent impact on Jupiter.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Website disclaimers

A memo for bloggers:

In the first case of its kind, the Court of Appeal has endorsed website disclaimers. Mistakes can be excused by warning notices, it ruled. However, the judges based their decision, at least in part, on a misunderstanding of how people use websites.

The case confirms that a website can owe a duty of care to its visitors. That much was predictable, albeit untested (by my recollection) in UK courts. What was less predictable was how easily a site could dodge that duty: simply tell your visitors to seek further information before they rely on what they read and, hey presto, you're off the hook. This month’s ruling is a gift for the risk-averse. Cue more disclaimers on websites.

The Great Repeal Bill

There used to be an informal grouping called The Repeal Club, back in the early 1980s, of peers in the House of Lords dedicated to, well, repealing unnecessary and destructive legislation. Douglas Carswell is now trying an experiment in Open Source politics:

Britain is over regulated. Laws, regulation and red tape stifle individuals, infantilise communities and strangle enterprise. We need a Great Repeal Bill.

Bills are traditionally drafted by "experts" and professional politicians. But it will require the wisdom and experience of all those struggling to cope with them to know which ones to scrap. That's why the Great Repeal Bill is not being drafted by them - but by you.
Find it here.

Edith Rigby

... anyone who chose to attack a Labour MP with a black pudding deserves some notice
That they do. A personal list of 5 English radicals from Edward Vallance.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Our coloured brethren

Norm is, of course, right:

Criminalize certain forms of mere speech, and newly offensive discursive tropes - euphemistic, oblique, metonymic - will find their way into the world as a replacement.

School choice

These sentences, from a piece by Neal Lawson, have been the subject of some debate:

Markets, the mechanism of choice, are designed to allocate the spoils to the winner. That's OK with supermarkets and car makers – it's not OK for the state. We can't have and can't allow schools and hospitals to fail and be replaced by the fittest.
Elsewhere in the piece, Lawson writes:
In essence, markets allocate resources on the basis of matching willing buyers to willing sellers.
That's almost right, whereas his apparent definition in the first quote, that markets are "the mechanism of choice" is not. Choice has many mechanisms. In fact, there's a lot wrong with the first quote. Markets haven't been designed to do anything at all; they simply haven't been designed. They're what we call the process of exchange. In what way are the cabbages on a market stall "spoils"? When we can all go and buy one of the cabbages if we wish, who are the winners and who the losers? In the context of education, where there is no market, the losers are easy to discern; they are the kids who are herded into the schools Lawson insists stay open, even though they are failing.

Lawson then suggests this mechanism is OK for staying alive (eating) and transport (though whether he sticks to that view when discussing transport policy might be another matter), but not for schools. Why not? He doesn't say, the first word of the next sentence is "Second" - he starts another point.

To suggest that it would be wrong for failing schools and hospitals to be replaced by fit ones is just... incredible. No, it's immoral. It amounts to the demand that people die avoidably, and have their life chances blighted, avoidably, in deference to his political dogma. And he even uses the words "fittest" and "fail", this isn't an exaggeration on my part.

The whole piece is like this, though. For some comment from the rational left we have to turn elsewhere. Chris Dillow suggests that for a market in education to succeed, schools have to be scalable. Why? A failing school would present, in a market, several opportunities - scaling is one of them for other schools, but there's also takeover and the opening of new competitive ventures. In a market, with lags and imperfections for sure, all of these things would happen.

The last decade has proved that state provisioning of education is prone to all the problems of, well, state provisioning. Apparatchiks send their kids to elite schools, the affluent and connected use their connections to remain affluent, inequalities increase, quality falls, tractor production rises to historic new heights.

This isn't entirely how I'd do things, but here's a suggestion for the non-authoritarian, anti-managerialist left: ban all parental input to school costs. No parents can pay school fees. But all children have vouchers and parents can send their kids where they want. Bad schools can fail, and the kids of parents who don't care as well as of those who do will have to go to better ones. Let people lift the quality up, rather the state drag it down.

Instead of parents trying to move to areas where there are good schools, pushing up property prices, creating new inequalities, there would be incentives for successful schools to open in areas where there are none at the moment. Mountains would start moving towards Mohammed.

How would the right cope with that suggestion? Any objections would be impossible to disguise as anything other than a wish to preserve hereditary privilege. As things stand, the imbecility of people like Lawson, demanding, explicitly, that failing schools be allowed to continue to fail - and in practice that means failing the most disadvantaged kids - masks all other considerations.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Strange voyage

I started reading The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst last night, a book I bought ages ago in a second-hand bookshop, mainly because it was co-authored by Nicholas Tomalin, one of the best journalists of the late twentieth century, a man killed tragically early while reporting from Golan in 1973, and one who deserves immortality if only for his observation "The only qualities essential for real success in journalism are ratlike cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability".

To be lazy, and quote Wikipedia's introduction:

Donald Crowhurst (1932–1969) was a British businessman and amateur sailor who died while competing in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, a single-handed, round-the-world yacht race. Crowhurst had entered the race in hopes of winning a cash prize from the Sunday Times to aid his failing business. Instead, he encountered difficulty early in the voyage, and secretly abandoned the race while reporting false positions, in an attempt to appear to complete a circumnavigation without actually circling the world. Evidence found after his disappearance indicates that this attempt ended in insanity and suicide.
What a story lies behind that brief description. Crowhurst set sail knowing he had no chance of success; he spent the night before departure lying in his wife's arms, weeping. She now thinks he was trying to get permission from her to abandon the voyage, at the time she thought he wanted encouragement.

Cropwhurst sailed in a trimaran, very fast, hopeless with a contrary wind, and impossible to right if it capsized. His strange mixture of genius, ambition and unpreparedness might be best symbolised by a device he invented to prevent the boat capsizing completely if overturned by a wave. A large inflatable bag was attached to the top of the main mast, connected by a wiring loom to a computer of his own design, in the cabin. This computer would sense that the vessel had gone over, the inflatable bag would float and hold the trimaran on its side, the computer would then adjust the buoyancy of the lower float until it sank enough for a wave to nudge the yacht back upright. Except that when he sailed, the bag was uninflatable, the wiring loom in place but unconnected at either end, and the computer was a storage compartment full of boxes of electronic components, all entirely unassembled.

The story of this man, who set out with no intention to deceive but descended into insanity and suicide, has been the subject of a dozen books, songs, films and plays. Why? I can offer three suggestions.

It's just a gripping story, there's an inevitability of doom from the very start, one that Crowhurst himself seems to have been aware of. Whatever his faults might have been, they didn't include cowardice. He set sail in a boat he knew was likely to kill him, one way or another. Whatever his deceits, they were unplanned and incremental, rooted in self-deceit, one leading to another, until he sat in his cabin, unhinged by Lear-like despair and isolation, surrounded by trailing wires and useless gadgets: the rubble of his life.

The story gives in miniature what could be a jaundiced view of the lives of many people, hopes and ambitions that descend into failure and self-deceit, though normally all of these elements exist on a far tinier scale than they did for Crowhurst.

And there's a little of Crowhurst in us all. Most of us learn to suppress and control the small inner child who sees an astronaut and wants to become one. Crowhurst never did.

Crowhurst left behind a wife, Clare, and four young children. In the introduction to the book, the authors say that while there is no hero in the story, there is a heroine, Clare Crowhurst. What must it have been like for her, discovering the truth about her husband's doom in the depth of her bereavement, faced with the prospect of raising four children alone?

Yet while "hero" might be too strong a word, there is, in this story, at the end, at the least a very fine man. Robin Knox Johnstone, who won the race Crowhurst was competing in and by doing so became the first man to sail single-handed around the world without stopping, donated his prize money to Clare Crowhurst:
“I never expected to win that money so it just made sense to donate it to a family who really needed it,” Knox-Johnston says from Fremantle. “I found out soon after what Donald had done. I was one of only half a dozen people who knew the truth but I didn’t feel bitter or betrayed, just terribly sad.”

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What if it arrived pre-trained... ?

Babes of the BNP, revisited.

Humane human sacrifice

Human sacrifice is clearly a potent forcing agent in climate equilibration. Furthermore, analysis of the climate record suggests its decline has been a key driver of rising global temperatures. The Aztec (and other) priests were right. Only sacrifice will ensure humankind’s survival.

Given this outcome, should there not be an independent review of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) perspective? Are atmospheric carbon dioxide increases really the dominant forcing agent for global warming (IPCC, 2007, p. 136), with the main contributor to human carbon dioxide emissions being fossil fuel combustion (IPCC, 2007, p. 512)? The review should assess whether other factors, such as global population growth, are important contributors to global warming.

Opposition to human sacrifice as a climate change mitigation strategy is possible. However, society is on the cusp of a paradigm shift. Excessive individualism is in decline. Neo-liberalism is under attack. There is growing recognition our fate is determined by mysterious events related to the Sun (Sol)—333,000 times more massive than Earth and just eight light-minutes away. The Age of Sol is dawning.

The eco-spirituality that led to the first Earth Day celebration in Stockholm on April 22, 1970, fortunately has deepened over the past three decades or so. Voluntary sacrifice is no longer seen as the macabre ritual of a barbaric culture. It is more dignified than it was 500 years ago too, due to advances in psychotherapy and therapeutic medicine. There is a place for it in Sol’s pantheon. After all: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (and future generations). He shall gain everlasting life.”

The threat of climate change is real. A long period of dangerous solar irradiance is inevitable without decisive action. Humankind has angered Sol for too long. The precautionary principle justifies reviving (humane) human sacrifice (HHS). It would be a wise exercise in risk management. To be climate-change-ready, national and global mitigation strategies should include HSS commitments, based on national population growth projections.

In Australia, the government should offer generous grants to HHS dependants; issue free (securitised) sacrificial credits to working families; create a new Order of the Bleeding Heart; and restructure the now redundant carbon emissions trading scheme as the Human Pollution Reduction Scheme. These initiatives would send a strong message to the world—and to all Cihuacoatl sceptics and Huitzilopochtli deniers—that this country is serious about climate change.


Atefah Sahaaleh

The rape of female prisoners prior to their execution in Iran has been commented on recently, following the publication in the Jerusalem Post of an interview with one of the Basiji - the militia that was so deeply involved in the violent suppression of the recent demonstrations in Iran:

He said he had been a highly regarded member of the force, and had so "impressed my superiors" that, at 18, "I was given the 'honor' to temporarily marry young girls before they were sentenced to death."

In the Islamic Republic it is illegal to execute a young woman, regardless of her crime, if she is a virgin, he explained. Therefore a "wedding" ceremony is conducted the night before the execution: The young girl is forced to have sexual intercourse with a prison guard - essentially raped by her "husband."
Many of these young girls have been convicted of "crimes against chastity" or adultery, and are therefore not virgins - unless they were not guilty. No matter, anecdotal evidence, including this, suggests they are raped anyway.

It's worth remembering the case of Atefah Sahaaleh, a 16 year old girl who was hanged in 2004:
Her death sentence was imposed for "crimes against chastity".

The state-run newspaper accused her of adultery and described her as 22 years old.

But she was not married - and she was just 16.
Being stopped or arrested by the moral police is a fact of life for many Iranian teenagers.

Previously arrested for attending a party and being alone in a car with a boy, Atefah received her first sentence for "crimes against chastity" when she was just 13.

Although the exact nature of the crime is unknown, she spent a short time in prison and received 100 lashes.

When she returned to her home town, she told those close to her that lashes were not the only things she had to endure in prison. She described abuse by the moral police guards.

Soon after her release, Atefah became involved in an abusive relationship with a man three times her age.

Former revolutionary guard, 51-year-old Ali Darabi - a married man with children - raped her several times.
This young girl was raped by the moral police then repeatedly raped by an ex-revolutionary guard.
When Atefah realised her case was hopeless, she shouted back at the judge and threw off her veil in protest.

It was a fatal outburst.

She was sentenced to execution by hanging, while Darabi got just 95 lashes.

Shortly before the execution, but unbeknown to her family, documents that went to the Supreme Court of Appeal described Atefah as 22.

"Neither the judge nor even Atefah's court appointed lawyer did anything to find out her true age," says her father.

And a witness claims: "The judge just looked at her body, because of the developed physique... and declared her as 22."

Judge Haji Rezai took Atefah's documents to the Supreme Court himself.

And at six o'clock on the morning of her execution he put the noose around her neck, before she was hoisted on a crane to her death.
How did the judge get to look at this girl's "developed" body, if even removing a headscarf was intolerable immodesty? Wikipedia adds some also un-sourced detail that, if true, answers this question (emphasis added):
After the execution of Atefeh, Iranian media reported that Judge Rezai and several militia members including Captain Zabihi and Captain Molai were arrested by the Intelligence Ministry. Inside sources informed the media that in addition to the confession of his rape of Atefeh, Judge Rezai who served as judge, jury and executioner, also confessed to torturing her during interrogations to extract names of others she had relations with.

On a side note, I see my old friend Darius Guppy has written to The Independent in support of the regime responsible for this barbarity. That's precisely the side I would have expected him to take. I recently conducted a video interview with the former Manhattan detective who led in the case of his faked robbery, Ray Berke, and will post it here once the editing is finished. Ray makes it very clear that where my account of past events has been different from that of Guppy, my version was correct.


It seems that genocidal violence is bad for the economy:

So if you want to draw conclusions from the statistics, the inescapable conclusion is that Palestinian Arab terror is the major driver for a reduction in Palestinian Arab standards of living. Conversely, relatively peaceful periods show that the Palestinian Arab GDP steadily increases when they aren't as focused on killing Jews.

If Zogby wants to help his Palestinian Arab friends, he should be encouraging them to stop their obsession with violence.

Via Snoopy.

Pakistan is the problem

Pakistani officials have told the Obama administration that the Marines fighting the Taliban in southern Afghanistan will force militants across the border into Pakistan, with the potential to further inflame the troubled province of Baluchistan, according to Pakistani intelligence officials.

Pakistan does not have enough troops to deploy to Baluchistan to take on the Taliban without denuding its border with its archenemy, India, the officials said. Dialogue with the Taliban, not more fighting, is in Pakistan’s national interest, they said.

The Pakistani account made clear that even as the United States recommits troops and other resources to take on a growing Taliban threat, Pakistani officials still consider India their top priority and the Taliban militants a problem that can be negotiated. In the long term, the Taliban in Afghanistan may even remain potential allies for Pakistan, as they were in the past, once the United States leaves.
This in the week a Pakistani militant changed his plea to guilty of charges that included waging war on India, a man who was simply the latest Pakistani terrorist to attack Indian civilians - while no attack has taken place in the opposite direction.

Oh Lordy

This is a bit late, but I just noticed the Achewood strip that followed the death of Michael Jackson:

He was your Elvis, and when your Elvis dies, so does the private lie that someday you will be young once again, and feel at capricious intervals the weightlessness of a joy that is unchecked by the injuries of experience and failure.

The shape of things to come

Gene at Harry's Place just posted about the extraordinarily brave Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez. I subscribe to her blog feed, but hadn't looked at it for a while.

This post made me realise how close a world of carbon (and energy) rationing would be to that of a repressive and dysfunctional state like Cuba:

A store on Neptune Street closed yesterday so they wouldn’t have to turn on the air conditioner after exceeding the strict plan of kilowatts consumed. In a five-star hotel they tell the tourists they’re repairing the air conditioner but in reality they turn it off so the meter won’t run so fast. In both places the employees breathe the hot stuffy air while few customers venture into the large market to buy, or remain in the lobby of the luxurious accommodation.
Ms Sánchez has a suggestion for other energy efficiencies:
Obviously these measures originated in some office air-conditioned by “up there”; they occurred to those who, at three in the afternoon, didn’t have to wait for a document in a place where more than twenty people were crowded together, sweating. I would like to throw out a proposal to the architects of this program, that they extend the cuts to certain untouchable sites where the thermometer still shows less than 25 degrees Celsius. It would be good, for example, to ask the members of the National Assembly, who are meeting on August 1st, to travel to their meeting on public transport so as not to waste fuel on their chartered bus. They should, keeping with the electrical restrictions we all live with, deliberate by the light of candles, drink warm soft drinks at the break, and limit their session to only a couple of hours, to avoid the costs of using the microphones and the TV transmitters. The unanimous approval and frantic applause which characterizes all their actions don’t require much meeting time, nor the enjoyment of relaxing air conditioning.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Kos and liberty

The Daily Kos has started its own version of Wikipedia, for politics. And it would be rude not to take a moment to make fun of its - acknowledged - biases.

However, classical liberals and libertarians might be interested in this piece by the man himself, from 2006. There's not much wrong with this:

A Libertarian Dem rejects government efforts to intrude in our bedrooms and churches. A Libertarian Dem rejects government "Big Brother" efforts, such as the NSA spying of tens of millions of Americans. A Libertarian Dem rejects efforts to strip away rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights -- from the First Amendment to the 10th. And yes, that includes the 2nd Amendment and the right to bear arms.
And he went on to cast a more realistic light on "positive" freedoms than is often the case:
A Libertarian Dem believes that true liberty requires freedom of movement -- we need roads and public transportation to give people freedom to travel wherever they might want. A Libertarian Dem believes that we should have the freedom to enjoy the outdoor without getting poisoned; that corporate polluters infringe on our rights and should be checked. A Libertarian Dem believes that people should have the freedom to make a living without being unduly exploited by employers. A Libertarian Dem understands that no one enjoys true liberty if they constantly fear for their lives, so strong crime and poverty prevention programs can create a safe environment for the pursuit of happiness. A Libertarian Dem gets that no one is truly free if they fear for their health, so social net programs are important to allow individuals to continue to live happily into their old age. Same with health care. And so on.
No rational right-libertarian denies the existence of negative externalities (though some irrational ones do), nor would they quibble about law and order. The sticking points are transport and health care.

Perhaps. These are similar arguments. Shopping has moved from High Street to supermarkets you really do need a car to use, especially in the country. Are you really free if you're unable to buy the food others can and don't have access to health care because you're uninsured? Yes, you can be. But here the liberal and the libertarian part company; concern for the less well off has always been a liberal preoccupation, since Adam Smith and Mill (in the latter case the utilitarian argument is obvious). On health care, the libertarian and the overwhelming majority of this country part company. Libertarians can choose to bathe in the streams of doctrinal purity if they wish, but they make themselves irrelevant if they do. It would be more fruitful to debate how tax-funded treatment should be provisioned - by the People's Army or private suppliers - than over whether it should exist.

It does strike me, though, that a significant alliance is not being formed - liberal people from right and left - because both prefer to let the best be the enemy of the good.

Sudden impact

Not sure why this hasn't made the front pages - a very large object seems to have hit Jupiter. And the impact was first spotted by an Australian amateur astronomer called Anthony Wesley. That's one of the things I like best about astronomy - at the moment it's still possible for the amateur to make discoveries.


The following two paragraphs were published in the opposite order, originally:

It is unclear how the 36-year-old man, named by local media as Ronald Marshall, was set alight, but family members told the Australian newspaper that his body burst into flames after the Taser hit him on the bridge of his nose.
The incident took place in the West Australian remote desert community of Warburton after police approached a house where the man and others were sniffing petrol...

Monday, July 13, 2009

A caristia of labourers

How much suffering can one short, forgotten phrase contain?

"Caristia" is a Latin word, but Caesar wouldn't have understood it. It came into use in English records during the Middle Ages, meaning a "dearth", or shortage. Manorial records sometimes refer to a caristia of labourers.

This phrase seems to have meant both fewer hands than were needed, and increased wages for those that could be found. Both prices and wages were fairly slow to change, in the long term, during the Middle Ages partly because they were often set in terms of long term contracts for tenancy or service, partly because there were strong, especially religious, conventions about the correct levels for prices and wages, and against arbitrage.

But you can't buck the market entirely. Short term price and wage fluctuations were inevitable. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, for example, wheat prices rose gradually from under 3s a quarter to over 6s. But during the bad harvests of 1315-17 the price hit 25s.

That was an extreme case, the sudden onset of global cooling after the wealth and comfort of the Medieval Warm Period. But there would be shortages of labourers from time to time anyway, with the normal fluctuations of the years and their harvests. I have a very heavy crop of cherries this year in my garden. Last year there were almost none. When that happens with cherries in a developed economy, I go to the shop and buy some that were grown somewhere that had a better harvest this year - trade smooths out supply. When it happens with wheat in a peasant economy, people die. During the Middle Ages, some years so many men died that it affected the level of wages.

A moment's reflection on what the reality of this must have been like gave me my opening sentence.

Why did ordinary variations in production have a greater effect during the Middle Ages than they do today? The answers are surprisingly relevant to us now, and to the sorts of arguments put forward by what you might call the neo-primitivists - that odd assortment of people from the green left to the isolationist, protectionist and libertarian right who want to return us to a golden age of disease and starvation.

The problem they had, in the past, is that they didn't trade*, and they didn't try to make profits - they weren't capitalists. This killed, from time to time, sometimes two digit percentages of the populations unnecessarily.

Here's an odd thing: in a tenant-peasant economy, when farmers produce just enough to feed themselves and to pay their dues, rents, tithes and so forth, market forces invert. When the price of a commodity rises (through scarcity) production falls and when prices fall, production rises. Higher prices mean you need less to pay your rents, lower prices mean you need more. This means that price swings, and scarcity and surplus, are amplified to damaging effect.

Capitalism, the investment of resources in trade for a profit within an economy and between economies, restored the positive relationship between supply and demand and gave rise to the stockpiling that buffers us against shortages today. And because we have capitalism, because we have relatively free trade, wages are no longer set by the number of people who died during the most recent famine.

* I wrote this in too much of a hurry. They didn't trade enough. Of course there was trade; without it there would have been no prices. But the classic pattern for the medieval Manor did not include the production of a surplus beyond subsistence and taxes/rents. Trade existed because of surplus production on estates that deviated from this classic pattern.

Moreover, they weren't sufficiently capitalist. Some people did buy grain and stockpile it, holding reserves until prices rose so they could make a good profit (regrating, something that was even illegal at times). As still happens today, such activity was roundly condemned by the Church as immoral.

This immoral practice saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Today, it saves hundreds of millions.

[No online references for any of this; see Postan pp 257-263.]

Wednesday, July 08, 2009


They say that's what they want from us - I'm not a graphic artist, but I just did this for my sidebar. Obviously, use it if you want (right click, save as).

Thanks to Azarmehr for the Farsi word for solidarity.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Selling sex

This slipped beneath the radar recently.

How do you make sure you have unanimous agreement at a meeting in the House of Commons?

Simple: stop anyone who disagrees with you from entering the meeting.

The current feminist fascination with trafficked sex workers should be seen in its true context. It is the successor to the Cleveland child abuse wolf crying, and the Satanic Abuse nonsense that followed it. It's a conspiracy theory.