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.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Turkish Hackers

Anyone running mainstream CRM websites has got used to the attacks by "Turkish hackers", which usually exploit well-known vulnerabilities in CRM engines like Joomla and Drupal. The Jewish Chronicle site was hacked yesterday by "Turkish hackers" - the quote marks are because in this context people who say they're from Turkey probably aren't.

I don't have any inside knowledge, but I'd bet a fiver that the site software (Drupal) hadn't been updated recently. When websites are commissioned, there's often no thought given to ongoing security updating and monitoring so sites go without the security patches that are released periodically.

Solidarity postponed

The Islamic Solidarity Games have been cancelled after a dispute between Arab countries and Iran over the name of the waterway dividing them

Mick Green

One of the great British guitarists died a few days ago. Mick Green played with Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, then the Pirates after Kidd died. Wilko Johnson always acknowledged the influence of Green's playing. Here's the Pirates with Lonesome Train, from 1977.

Obit in the Jewish Chronicle makes more of Green's later work with Van Morrison.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Sodomy and sleeping positions

This is doing the rounds at the moment, as an example of Islamic idiocy. Now, I'm as happy as the next man to make fun of religion but I think in this case it's a bit unfair. Here's the quote, from an ask-an-Imam page somewhere:


1. Is it true that if you sleep on your stomach the devil will sodomize you.
2. Is Harry Potter permissable and if it isn't will everyonw who reads them go to hell.


1. It is Makrooh (disliked) to sleep on one's stomach. It is not true that the Shaytaan will sodomise a person who is sleeping on his stomach.

2. Harry Potter is not a good read for Muslims.

and Allah Ta'ala Knows Best

Mufti Ebrahim Desai
It's the questions that are dumb, not so much the answers from the Imam. A lot of Christians think Harry Potter is the work of the devil. Sleeping on one's stomach is "disliked"? Islam is very prescriptive, claiming to regulate every aspect of life and this dislike is no more silly than many religious edicts. How about not eating meat on Fridays? Why?

It's just normal religious bossiness.

Hitchens on Iran

Part 2 of Michael Totten's interview with Christopher Hitchens is online:

MJT: If the Obama Administration calls you up and says, "Christopher, we need you to come in here, we need your advice." What would you tell them?

Hitchens: I would say, as I did with Saddam Hussein—albeit belatedly, I tried to avoid this conclusion—that any fight you're going to have eventually, have now. Don't wait until they're more equally matched. It doesn't make any sense at all.

The existence of theocratic regimes that have illegally acquired weapons of mass destruction, that are war with their own people, that are exporting their violence to neighboring countries, sending death squads as far away as Argentina to kill other people as well as dissident members of their own nationality—the existence of such regimes is incompatible with us. If there is going to be a confrontation, we should pick the time, not them.

We're saying, "Let's give them time to get ready. Then we'll be more justified in hitting them." That's honestly what they're saying. When we have total proof, when we can see them coming for us, we'll feel okay about resisting.

Now this IS unpleasant

Bacon flavour personal lubricant.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Straw in the wind

Yes, true.

I was in Nice with my girlfriend when the Climategate story broke and was too busy to read much of the news. So when I got back I looked at the Telegraph website. Nothing on the front page, nothing in the news sections. But the first and third most read pieces on the site, according to the side panel, were blogs about Climategate.

I don't think the editorial team even noticed.

One old black man

Here's how "one old black man defeated the entire Ku Klux Klan".


On another occasion, he went into a cafe in Ada, Oklahoma with his friend, Oklahoma State Senator Gene Stipe, where he was stopped at the door by the waitress. She proceeded to tell them they did not serve Negroes there! Wade told the woman, “Ma’am, I don’t eat Negroes anyway, just give me some ham and some eggs!”

Wade told Senator Stipe that he had one wish… meet face to face with the leader of the Ku Klux Klan. He got his wish in the form of a nationwide radio debate with the Imperial Wizard. It was the meeting that ultimately, and over some time, would change the heart of Johnny Lee Clary, Imperial Wizard of the KKK. Wade and Johnny became best friends and Johnny is even Godfather of Wade’s daughter, Tia.

Rev. Wade Watts passed away, Dec. 13th, 1998. The night he passed away, two of his daughters heard him talking as he laid in bed. They heard Wade say “Thank You, Sir!” They asked him, ” Dad, who are you talking to?”, since they were the only ones in the room with him. Wade replied, ” I am talking to Jesus. He said He is coming to take me home.” The nurse came into the room, and asked Wade what he would like for breakfast in the morning. Wade replied, “It don’t matter, hon. I’m not going to be here for breakfast because Jesus told me He is coming for me.” That night, Wade died in his sleep.

Rev. Watts was like a father to me. I am grateful for all the years I had with him, and for all the wisdom and knowledge he passed on to me. He told me that he was passing me his mantle. I do not feel worthy to take it up; however, if he thought that much of me to invest all those years of time and wisdom into me, then I owe it to the memory of him to fight racism and continue his works. Wade and I always called one another “Old Partner”. I will miss him for the rest of my life, and will never forget him.
The writer was the Klan leader who burned down Watts' church.

Logical error

Chris conflates an argument with a state of affairs here:

In the labour market, many people favour big incentives and little risk-pooling. Unemployment insurance, they say, reduces people’s incentive to find work, whilst big wage inequality encourages them to work harder.

However, when it comes to the market for corporate ownership, things are different. The dominant form - measured in pounds if not the number of companies - is dispersed ownership. This generates good risk-spreading but weak incentives.

You can see my puzzle. For workers, risk and incentives must be sharp. But for capitalists they must be blunt. Strange, huh?
People do argue that unemployment benefits reduce the incentive to find work, and that's got to be true. However, it's a lesser evil than starving unemployed people. But that's an argument. The situation with dispersed share ownership is a state of affairs that has developed organically, a very different thing. And it's less true in the case of managed funds where the risk is spread between many owners but the management of funds is concentrated in people who really do focus the minds of managers.

The problem is, this focussing is corrupted by cronyism, by the fact that business managers and fund managers are drawn from the same small pond and tend to reinforce rather than challenge each other's behaviour.

But that's a combination of corruption and stupidity. It's not capitalism. Capitalism would also exist if risk (share ownership) were less dispersed.

UPDATE: Link to Chris's post added.


Tim is half right about this. There's no contradiction between a)

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury.
And b)
It can only exist until the bureaucracy discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury.
We have both situations. A (bureaucratic) political establishment offers other people's money to the electorate in order to gain power, in order then to help themselves to the contents of the treasury.

The Adams family

Gerry Adams has posted an account of the history of sexual abuse accusations within his family. One interesting line is this:

There was no cover-up. No evasion. The fact is that it was one of my family members who, when we first became aware of the allegations, accompanied Áine and her mother to the Social Services.

A complaint was also made by Áine and her mother to the RUC.
To the RUC? That would have to be on record, and if it is then some of the criticism Adams has faced over this has been misplaced. That Adams was not the family member who accompanied his niece would not be surprising, under the circumstances.


"You know what they call alternative medicine that's been proved to work? Medicine."

Movie blog here.

Ooh, ooh. Want.

This. On CD, or even just the earliest volume.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Compare and contrast

Nature, 9 September 2009:

Research cannot flourish if data are not preserved and made accessible. All concerned must act accordingly.
Nature, 2 December 2009:
If there are benefits to the e-mail theft, one is to highlight yet again the harassment that denialists inflict on some climate-change researchers, often in the form of endless, time-consuming demands for information under the US and UK Freedom of Information Acts. Governments and institutions need to provide tangible assistance for researchers facing such a burden.
Letter to Nature, not yet online, 12 January 2010:
Your Editorial (Nature 462, 545; 2009) castigates “denialists” for making “endless, time-consuming demands for information under the US and UK Freedom of Information Acts”. But you do not mention the reason — that the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia has systematically tried to avoid revealing data and code.
Science relies upon open analysis of data and methods, and the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has a clear data-sharing policy that expects scientists “to cooperate in validating and publishing [data] in their entirety”. The university’s leaked e-mails imply a concerted effort to avoid data sharing, which both violates the best practice defined in NERC policy and prevents verification of the results obtained by the unit. Asking for scientific data and code should not lead to anyone being branded as part of the “climate-change denialist fringe”.

Troubled Spirit

Mars rover Spirit is in trouble, stuck in sand and unable to turn its solar panels towards the sun to gather enough energy for the coming Martian winter.

Built to last three months, it is now in its sixth year of operation. And even stuck in the sand, it can work:

"Spirit could continue significant research right where it is," said Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, deputy principal investigator for the rovers. "We can study the interior of Mars, monitor the weather and continue examining the interesting deposits uncovered by Spirit's wheels."

How politics works

The Scorekeeper is not pronouncing [health care reform] dead until a Republican Congress is in place.

Google vs China

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Google Inc. said Tuesday it might end its operations in China after it discovered that the e-mail accounts of human rights activists had been breached.

The company disclosed in a blog post that it had detected a "highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China." Further investigation revealed that "a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists," Google's post said.

Google did not specifically accuse the Chinese government. But the company added that it is "no longer willing to continue censoring our results" on its Chinese search engine, as the government requires. Google says the decision could force it to shut down its Chinese site and its offices in the country.

Scientific research

In 1981, Abol-Hassan Banisadr, the first president of the Islamic Republic, announced that scientific research had shown that women's hair emits rays that drive men insane with lust.
Read it in full.

Be green - be fat

Obesity is more green than being slim. Although you consume a bit more while you're alive, it's OK because you'll die earlier. Your lifetime total consumption of the earth's resources will be lower.


esr on crime rates

What has caused crime rates to fall in the USA, and not to rise during the current recession? The ready availability of drugs, booze, contraception, abortion and cars. Unwanted kids are less likely to be born, and criminal personalities have so many more means available to kill themselves.

It's an interesting argument from Eric Raymond, though not noticeably buttressed by empirical data. However, have a glance.


This was a bit of a coup for someone:

Their ownership was then a mystery until they were discovered inside a railway timetable in a box of second-hand books purchased at a local book sale in the 1970s. The owner, who wished to remain anonymous, sold them for £441,000.
The anonymous second-hand book buyer had found eight etchings by William Blake. These have now been bought by The Tate and will go on exhibition later this year.

New blog

Looks good:

When I do my very very overdue update of the blogroll, it will be added.

Beyond the pale

Should a broadcaster with links to extreme politics present the BBC's election special? How about one who said this, back in 2003:

I suspect that these days I'm politically closest to the BNP...
That's not quite what Dermot O'Leary told the Guardian back then. As pointed out by the Biased BBC blog today, in the Guardian interview in question he said:
Labour, Tory, Liberal or Socialist Workers?
I suspect that these days I'm politically closest to the Socialist Workers, but they'd take all my money so it's still Labour.
It's worth asking why The Guardian chose to add the tiny, electorally insignificant political cult that is the SWP to a list of mainstream political parties in the question. They're not the only ones who do this. Following Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time last year, Jack Straw was quoted in The Times as saying:
"... there is something basically decent running through Britain and British politics from UKIP to the Socialist Workers Party. But he is beyond the pale on that."
The BNP is beyond the pale, in my opinion. But so is the SWP, which allied with reactionary Islamists in the RESPECT party. This isn't a left/right issue, plenty of mainstream democratic socialists object to the SWP, and the BNP's policies combine communitarianism with a form of socialism which, to many conservatives and liberals, places them on the left of the spectrum even though they are racists.

Islamists would place all non-Muslims in the position of second class citizens, all women would be third class citizens, and they would murder free-thinkers, gays, apostates and others in the cruellest ways imaginable.

These Islamist policies are not SWP policies, but the SWP have been willing to pander to them. SWP policies themselves are straight from the political tradition that murdered more than 100 million people, and enslaved billions, during the 20th century.

Odious as they are, the BNP do not propose to do remotely as much harm to anything like as many people. Their ugliness is just a subset of that of the SWP, with race and class acting as substitutes between them, different lenses performing the same task: focussing hate.

The BNP is beyond the pale. But so is the SWP.

[Thanks to J for the email about Question Time]

Friday, January 08, 2010

Gerry Adams summarised

In order for there to be peace in the Middle East, Israel's government ought to agree to the resumption of the random slaughter of Israeli civilians.

Game theory

In the wild:

At first glance, the male cleaner wrasse behaves oddly for an animal, in punishing an offender on behalf of a third party, even though he hasn't been wronged himself. That's common practice in human societies but much rarer in the animal world. But Raihani's experiments clearly show that the males are actually doing themselves a favour by punishing females on behalf of a third party. Their act of apparent altruism means they get more food in the long run.


I wish I'd seen this a week ago. A seventeenth century cure ‘for one that is paralettick’ (pdf).

From here via here. If you follow the first of those links you'll see other handy recipes, including one titled "How to cook a husband".

Sea ice extent

This bothers me a bit. I was wondering why I hadn't seen any comparisons of sea ice extent in the Arctic on any of the sceptical blogs I read. Turns out the sea ice is at a pretty low level, despite the cold snap. At least, that's what it looks like to me. Land snow coverage is pretty unprecedented, though, from the looks of it - note: the 1980 slide below doesn't suggest there was no snow on the land. This has only been included in the more recent slides.

Source: Cryosphere Today.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Public service announcement

A round up of last year's output from P. J. O'Rourke has been posted here. Enjoy.

Perverse resilience

Hard-left blogger jamie k writes:

Both China and the US seem dedicated to the notion that systems which fail must be restored, whether over the economy or the environment. Call it perverse resilience.
There's a rather charming lack of awareness of irony there.

Peter Robinson

Iain Dale:

He has said he is determined to carry on his governmental duties as normal, but after watching [a video clip of Robinson] you have to question whether he is in the right frame of mind to be able to do that. He seems a broken man.
Gerry Adams:
The matters revealed so far are private and personal family matters and the Robinsons are entitled to space to resolve their marital difficulties.

Issues of public policy and of Peter’s responsibility to fulfil the obligations of his public office are another matter but his willingness to meet Martin McGuinness on Thursday and his stated intention to make 2010 a better year for everyone is to be welcomed.

It is on that issue that judgement should be made, not on private matters. Iris and Peter Robinson have the right and deserve the opportunity to rebuild their relationship. I wish them well.
Adams gets this right, in my view.

RIP Prof

Sometimes commenter on this blog, and a private correspondent of mine, Clay Bond, aka Rightwingprof died today after a short but savage struggle with cancer.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Avatar, a review

A guest post by Adam Smith

Well, OK. Not really. Smith died a couple of hundred years ago. But Luboš Motl's review of this film reminded me of Smith on colonialism. Smith was, of course, a strong advocate of Liberal values - personal freedom, economic freedom, free trade.

**Mild spoiler below**

First, Motl, who refers to the blue aliens in the movie as smurfs:

Now, some conservative commentators have decided that the movie is a propaganda piece to attack the white race, capitalism, America, the U.S. army, and the technological life on Earth as we know it. On the other hand, the movie celebrates Gaia, primitive tribes, and white traitors.

Well, the story may surely be interpreted in this way - as a pure far-left propaganda - but I wasn't really annoyed by this obvious interpretation. Why? Simply because I didn't have the feeling that the corporation reminded me of the real corporations that I like in our world. It didn't even remind me of the armies on the Earth that I respect. ;-)

On the other hand, the smurfs were primitive but their life was a life in freedom, a very primitive form of capitalism where you have to earn your flying horses, and so on. In this sense, I think that the corporation in the movie was analogous to the people who promote the Big Government, to the climate alarmists, and all this stuff. They also wanted everyone to work for one predetermined technocratic goal.
I think Smith's sympathies would have been with the smurfs too. In the movie, Humans want to extract minerals from the smurf's planet:

Folly and injustice seem to have been the principles which presided over and directed the first project of establishing those colonies; the folly of hunting after gold and silver mines, and the injustice of coveting the possession of a country whose harmless natives, far from having ever injured the people of Europe, had received the first adventurers with every mark of kindness and hospitality.
In ancient times the opulent and civilised found it difficult to defend themselves against the poor and barbarous nations. In modern times the poor and barbarous find it difficult to defend themselves against the opulent and civilised.

Free expression and the right to march

The right of an organisation like the BNP or Islam4UK to stage a march is not the same thing as their right to free expression, but it's pretty close. The right to free expression demands that everyone can say what they think, or even just what they want to say even if they don't really believe it, somewhere, in a publicly accessible way.

But does that mean Protestant Ulstermen should be able to march through Catholic areas, taunting them, celebrating the defeat of the Catholic cause in old battles? Or that a small group of Islamists should be able to stage a provocation in the town, Wooton Basset, that has become synonymous with the return of the corpses of British servicemen and women to the UK? After all, both Orangemen and Islamists can express their views freely, in public, in other ways, so a ban on either would have no effect on their right to free speech (so I disagree in this particular with Longrider).

In both cases, though, there are political issues. As Steve says of this latter case:

In all probability, Choudary is hoping that his march will be banned. That way he can claim that the British authorities are so scared of his jihadi army that they abandon their principles. Free speech, he will claim, doesn't apply to Muslims. By allowing his march to go ahead his bluff would be called. His pathetically small group of wannabe-theocrats, marching through the cold streets in their night-dresses, would look more ridiculous than frightening.
That's absolutely right, and this, not the right to free speech, is the reason the march should not be banned. However, I can think of an interesting precedent, from the late 1970s.

James Anderson was Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall (it may have been Andersen, I can find absolutely no reference to him on the internet, despite the fact that he was one of the best police officers this country has ever had). He is not to be confused with the bearded religious maniac James Anderton, who was Chief Constable of Greater Manchester at the same time.

At that time, the National Front were staging marches in British cities and towns, and the Anti-Nazi League and others staged counter demonstrations. When the NF decided to march in a town in his jurisdiction, Anderson simply hid all his police officers. They were there, in vans, with anti-riot gear, but they were hidden, nowhere to be seen when the NF arrived at the railway station. So, rather than march unprotected, the National Front went home.

Can anyone think of a case...?

From the comments to a post at the Quackometer, about James Randi and his recent statement about climate change (I'm copying just the relevant comments, snipping the rest):

ben goldacre said...
can anyone think of a case where the vast overwhelming majority of scientists, in their own field, all around the world, for a long period of time, by virtue of conspiracy (since that is the commonest accusation) or foolishness, held an opinion that was demonstrably wrong with reference to the facts available the time? and unanimously refused to concede to good quality arguments against their position? i'd be interested if there were any.

17 December, 2009 01:25
Gavin Schofield said...
If you took a loose definition of 'scientist' I suppose you could reasonably argue that, for instance the teachings of someone like Claudius Galen were more or less engraved in stone until around the mid 1500's - even though the facts contradicted them.

"His influence was so great that even when public readings from his texts were contradicted by the plain evidence of simultaneous dissections of the body, these discrepancies were ignored" - Medical Blunders, Robert Youngson & Ian Schott

However, I'd argue that this case and others like it from the same time can reasonably be ignored, as they can safely be considered pre-scientific. I can't think of any case like that from the last hundred or so years. I'm definitely not an expert here, and I could easily be wrong, but that's my current view.

Gavin Schofield, Greater Manchester Skeptics

17 December, 2009 02:43
Jim Lippard said...
Ben Goldacre: The usual example given is regarding meteorites (e.g., Ron Westrum, "Science and Social Intelligence about Anomalies: The Case of Meteorites," _Social Studies of Science_ vol. 8, no. 4, Nov. 1978, pp. 461-493).

17 December, 2009 02:51
Anonymous said...
Ben Goldacre: Many people claim this was (and to some extent is currently) the case for generative grammar in linguistics, providing you treat that as a science. It's far from (obviously) demonstratably incorrect though, and though it's less popular these days many people still support and work in the paradigm, myself included.

17 December, 2009 03:03
Vad said...
@Ben: my best offer to your challenge has to come with a caveat. I believe that the widely held belief that eating meat containing cholesterol leads to heart disease is wrong despite the seeming concensus on the subject. Though this falsehood is NOT being upheld by virtue of a conspiracy. Conspiracy by my definition means a willful, concerted effort of several people, but I don't think that's why the diet-heart/cholesterol has survived for so long despite being wrong.

Eventually that mistake will be corrected by science - which will progress better when the old guard of fat hysterics slowly die off.

I really try to keep out of the climate debate, because I get an icky feeling when I delve into it. I really, really like the idea of saving the planet and making it a paradise for us, but why - WHY - do everyone act like raving mad religionists trying to dumb down the question to one and only one factor: CO2. My soft, imprecise brain pretty much yells at me that this is no different than treating all heart disease as caused by saturated fat. As if there were no dynamics involved and we can just go linear on everyone.

It rubs me the wrong way so hard that I'm getting ready to fall down the likely wrong side of the fence out of nothing but spite.

17 December, 2009 11:40
bengoldacre said...
hi vad,

i think most peeople in medicine have been pretty iffy about the "eating cholesterol causes heart disease" thing for ages tho, as soon as contradictory evidenc started percolating through, and ppl wld now say (i think correctly) that there's something in there that involves cholesterol but its not clear what or how, or that specifically eating less cholesterol is better, but statins work a bit, and they lower cholesterol, and the blood levels correlate with some stuff, etc. it doesnt feel to me like cholesterol and heart disease is a case of almost everyone ignoring the currently available evidence against a theory. possibly a bit more organisational inertia among doctors than working epidemiologists and cardiology researchers too (big field, lots of new info all the time, and we're a bit slow in the head anyway).

the meteorites one is 19th century so i might not read it.

17 December, 2009 15:02
Tim Farley said...
"can anyone think of a case where the vast overwhelming majority of scientists ... held an opinion that was demonstrably wrong with reference to the facts available the time?"

I know its not a perfect fit, but what about the "stomach ulcers are caused by acid/stress" thing? I'm thinking about the period after Robin Warren and Barry Marshall put forth their h.pylori theory but before it was generally accepted. They had data, but didn't people refuse to accept it for a while?

17 December, 2009 15:15
Ben Pile said...
"can anyone think of a case where the vast overwhelming majority of scientists ... held an opinion that was demonstrably wrong with reference to the facts available the time?"

But can anyone think of a case where a scientific argument has been the basis for such a comprehensive transformation of the world's entire political, economic, industrial and social organisation?

The process by which we move from "CO2 from human industry has caused changes to the atmosphere, causing it to warm", to "if we don't change the way we live right now, we're all going to die" needs more scrutiny. While it goes without it, and while many people act as though the imperative was issued by science itself, there will be a question mark over the legitimacy of political responses to climate change, and an even greater question mark over the relationship between scientific and political authority.

17 December, 2009 16:13
Anonymous said...
Ben Goldacre (01.25)

With the constraints you ask for do you seriously expect an answer:

"can anyone think of a case where the vast overwhelming majority of scientists, in their own field, all around the world, for a long period of time, by virtue of conspiracy (since that is the commonest accusation) or foolishness, held an opinion that was demonstrably wrong with reference to the facts available the time? and unanimously refused to concede to good quality arguments against their position? i'd be interested if there were any"

plus as you later say, having to be 20th Century+. I'd suggest you give up looking. You're not exactly being flexible. Why not add "and which were exposed by hackers." to really finish off the quest.

I mean "all around the world" - that's a pretty bizarre constraint in itself.

The conspiracy as such is in the behaviour at CRU and is not necessarily even fully conscious - is it a lie if you believe it to be true? The reality is, as will come to be understood by more of the lamely compliant 'skeptics' so shocked by Randi's statement, that most of climate science is completely malleable to interpretation/ adjustment and relies almost entirely on rhetoric (unprecedented, pre-industrial, natural v anthropogenic, pollutant etc) to persuade the feeble-minded. And for you less feeble 'skeptics' try reading about "distance lending enchantment" and Fleick's work et seq.

17 December, 2009 18:21
Anonymous said...
Continental Drift?

Proposed in 1912 but not taken seriously until the 1960s.

Not that I'm a climate sceptic

17 December, 2009 21:02
wen said...

This isn't science - more social assumption. How about Irish prisoners during anti-Irish racist periods - Birmingham 6, Guildford 4, Martina Shanahan (Winchester 3), Judy Ward, Danny McNamee etc. That used evidence. A consensus approved it (jury) and it took years to challenge. Socially we are capable of this. We are still doing it. Ask Jack of Kent.

I was interested once and did a bit of research and at least 1/2 of all Irish women on extreme sentencea in England (more than 15 years) were aquitted at various appeals. This was made up to 2/3 by those who upheld their innocence and behaved as thus after release ie no contact with any policits eg Gillespie sisters. What if that were true for the men too? What social assumptions would that challenge? How would we feel about our justice system during that period if we thought that might be true. (I'll send you the names and sentences and stories if you want).

Every one of them was sent down on consensus by evidence. Social assumptions are very powerful.

Not to undermine you. I'm someone who feels that we've taken taken more out of this planet in the last 200 years than was ever taken before and we are doing so expontially. I am tired of the terror-mongers. Just tell us what are the best things we can do to help ourselves. Stop terrifying us. I think a lot of the denying is because pwople can't cope with the fear anymore.

18 December, 2009 20:48

Architectural realism

Julia's post here reminded me of an architectural triumph at the university I went to, in St Andrews. Andrew Melville Hall, one of the halls of residence, has its own Wikipedia article, which puts it like this:

Designed in the New Brutalist style by the renowned architect James Stirling, Andrew Melville Hall was built during a major expansion of the University in the 1960s using prefabricated concrete modules. Errors in construction meant that extensive remedial work was required over several decades. Plans for further buildings to the same design were abandoned.

It is of a striking design and is situated prominently at the North Haugh on a ridge overlooking the St Andrews Links. The hall resembles passing ships, a common theme of the architect's style.

It has become an important architectural landmark and has been ranked number 12 in the top 100 Scottish buildings of the last 50 years. Despite this, many students and townsfolk continue to regard it as an eyesore.
Here's what it looks like:

Even the grass is landscaped to look like waves, every few student rooms share a small "galley" with, as I remember them, round porthole-like windows, though I can't see these on the pic above (I was in a much nicer Hall until I moved to a cottage, and rarely I visited AMH).

So, the Hall was designed like a ship and the surroundings were landscaped to look like waves. There's a reference to remedial work in the Wiki quote above. I remember that too, it was going on at the time I was there. But I think the Wiki piece is a bit unfair. The "errors in construction" were perhaps just evidence of the architect's devotion to realism.

The Hall hadn't been given adequate foundations. So it sank.

Feet talking

We can perhaps judge the desirability of countries not by happiness indices drawn up by think tanks but rather by migration - which countries are people leaving and which ones are they trying to move to.

Is there a similar judgement to be made about the desirability of forms of political governance within a country by looking at internal migration between constituencies represented by politicians of different parties?

I ask because of this fascinating snippet from an article by John Rentoul in the Independent a week or so ago (emphasis added):

The Boundary Commission is supposed to equalise constituencies anyway: that is its main objective. Yet it always lags behind population change, because it is working on out-of-date data and by the time the changes are made, the population has drifted further from Labour to Conservative areas.

Monday, January 04, 2010


Chris asks:

should the concept of desert have any role in our thinking about distributive justice?
I'm interested in the use of the word "justice". This word has a long-established symbol:

Justice is, intrinsically, a matter of desert. What is in one of the scale pans must be balanced by what goes into the other. What's happened here - and Chris hasn't done this, initiated this, himself - is that the word has been redefined, meaning in this context "something I think should happen that I want to give great weight to".

This redefinition of words is much more characteristic of socialists than of people from other parts of the political spectrum. "Fair" now means, in political parlance, "high" or "redistributive" - as in the phrase "fair taxation". "Liberty" has been glossed with the word "positive" to mean "ability".

I don't know why this is characteristic of socialism. Orwell, of course, spotted this but I'm not aware he offered any analysis.

Carbon offsetting

Adnams is a very good local brewery here, and I like to do my bit to support local business. But this was a bit of a worry:

Carbon neutral beer? Beer?

Then I realised I had a sack full of carbon in a fairly pure form that could be released into the wild to offset this carbon neutrality. And I had one of these:

Put the two together, and throw into the mix a rib of hung Aberdeen Angus beef, and hey presto:

Carbon offsetting can be fun!

Happy New Year.

Clunkers and market share

Political Math posted this visualisation of the effect of the Cash for Clunkers program. Guess what? The program drove a significant transfer of market share from American car manufacturers to, mainly, Korean and Japanese ones: