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February 28, 2006

BBC and Iraq

Harry's Place has turned up this article on the BBC website.

In most countries, more people think removing Saddam Hussein was a mistake than
think it was the right decision.

However, let's not forget:

Iraqis are the most convinced that the removal of Saddam Hussein was right, with
74% agreeing with the move.

Hmm. There's also a more detailed graphic available here.

Of course there's no point in letting a people decide who should rule them. After all, if the rest of the world think Saddam was a good thing, let's put him back in power.


The achievement of a team is a function of the efforts and abilities of its members. I'm not going to clarify this; I use the term "function" quite loosely. Clearly it is possible to define activities which can be pulled along by the ability of one very good member, and also to define activities where the whole team is restricted to the speed of its weakest link.

Every now and again, when participating in these things, one becomes the weakest link. Maybe you're just starting out in a sport, maybe the others have moved on, or better people have joined and superseded you. I can see two ways to deal with this:
  1. Ignore it
  2. Practice so you improve

(Of course you have to spot that the situation has arisen before you can take any action, and perhaps point 1. is simply a feature of not recognising your position in the team).

I think there's two important points here. The first is that you can never improve your ability without recognising that other people are better than you. It's impossible to develop in a team if you arrogantly assume that you're the best, or if you fail to notice when the competition steps up.

The other point is that people of a mid-range ability won't practice until they slip to the bottom of the pile and decide to catch up. (The exception is where people have a chance of reaching the top spot, which becomes an aim in itself).

I'll continue to study team dynamics, and report back.

February 24, 2006


This week, I shall be mostly playing "Bach" (apologies to those unfortunate enough to have never seen "The Fast Show."

It's a bit confusing, really, one minute I thought I'd have a look through some old Preludes and Fugues, and the next I found myself sight-reading through the whole book trying to find some different stuff to learn. It's really addictive stuff.

Discussing this with a friend, the most entertaining thought we could come up with was that:

"If Bach were alive today, he'd be writing trance music."

After all he was a wild guy, with 18 kids. If that isn't a thought for the day, I don't know what is.

February 22, 2006


This post reminded me of two famous psychology experiments. The Milgram experiment concerns how humans respond to authority, and the Stanford Prison Experiment simulates the psychology of prison life. Both of these experiments are horrifying in their logical conclusion. The prison experiment website goes some way towards trying to explain the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

I first heard about the prison experiment while watching the German film, Das Experiment, which I caught late at night on BBC2 (with subtitles).

I always knew late-night TV could do me good.

February 18, 2006


Everybody should read this:

The interesting thing about the Tamiflu vaccine for bird flu that everybody keeps going on about, is this: it’s not a vaccine. The manufacturers even spell that out in their factsheet. It’s a drug, an antibiotic for viruses.

But you wouldn’t know that if you read Paul Routledge in the Mirror, Alan Hall in the Daily Mail, Sally Guyoncourt in the Express, the London Evening Standard, Simon Byrne in the Sunday People, and my own “yikes” favourite, Gavin Maguire, head of the “National Office for Emergency Planning” in Ireland, all of whom would tell you otherwise. I could go on.

I shall. Babies Refused Bird Flu Vaccine: Doctors face life-or-death decisions, screams the Daily Mail, in a story on a scare that hasn’t happened yet, for a vaccine that doesn’t exist. Any more? Looking at you, Terence Blacker and Sean O’Grady in the Independent. Christopher Hope at the Telegraph? Big smile now! But best of all: Lynne McTaggart.


In a radical move, even for the vaccine fear-mongering community, this time she actually has people dying from a vaccine that doesn’t exist: “Indeed, the flu shots are worse than useless. Japan has already reported that eight people have died - not from the virus, but from the avian flu jab itself.” Lordy. Good luck jabbing a Tamiflu capsule into your arm. Even better is where they call a virus with a 50% kill rate a pussycat: “At its worst, the avian flu has killed fewer than half the number of poultry workers who have been infected…however, if it truly is as lethal as we have been warned, it surely should have eventually killed everyone it infects.”

And what do they learn from this? “This suggests that a healthy body, and a properly functioning immune system, can withstand any viral attack.” They go on to suggest you might want to try vitamins A, C, and E, homeopathy, and the herbal remedies echinacea, Hydrastis canadensis, Andrographis paniculata, and Phytolacca americana.

Read the whole article at http://www.badscience.net/.

February 17, 2006


While trying to install the new version of Macromedia's Flash Player (now known as the Shockwave Player for some reason), I was asked if I might like to install the Yahoo! toolbar. The option was "yes" by default.

While I use Yahoo! a lot, this does not make me happy.

Foistware, spyware, or any software installed in a misleading fashion is fundamentally wrong and undesirable within the IT community. Especially when it comes from someone who ought to be above such things.

February 15, 2006

Infinitives Unsplit: More Censorship. Hmmmm.....

Infinitives Unsplit has given a link to a song called "It's In The Koran." Recommended listening / reading (read the comments as well).

Intriguingly, Infinitives Unsplit is written by a chap styling himself "The Pedant-General," although I don't think he means this in the way Oliver does.

February 14, 2006

What is Authority?

Another good read here. The article discusses the latest idea by Technorati to list blogs by "authority," measured by the number of incoming links to a blog.

"So, I am going to argue that links - be they Google or Technorati - have turned the entire concept of authority into something rather trivial - popularity. Does this mean Britney Spears is an authority too just because she's popular?"

Rather unfortunately in the modern world, yes it does.

Britney isn't a great example anymore now she's faded somewhat from the limelight, but there are lots of other celebrities who are given a platform to speak based on no real reason apart from the fact that they are popular. If Tom Cruise weren't a famous actor, do people really think he'd be given an opportunity to harp on about scientology for all these years?

Unreported History in Baghdad

This is quite a good read:

"The silence was deafening and the seats were empty. The western press was nowhere to be found. The location was Baghdad and the event was a February 10th, 2006 press conference announcing the final verification of December's election results. Although the final allocation of parliamentary seats did not change from last month's tentative reports, the conference was nonetheless significant for American and Iraqi history. What was equally significant was the absence of members of the western press."

February 10, 2006

Google shifts Greenwich Meridian

I don't usually quote The Register, but this seemed interesting.

Student Journalism...

... is not what it was.

In Today's copy of Varsity, the Cambridge Student Newspaper is a large front-page article about room rents in college. You start with a screaming headline:

Are rents fair?
£337 - £913
A room at Peterhouse, the college with the lowest average rent A room at St John's, the college with the highest average rent

Unfortunately this proves to be all bluster as the article never again mentions these figures or where they come from. Not only this, but buried in the text is the line:

"The data Varsity has gained from bursarial records shows the average termly rent for a student living in college accommodation for 2004-5, illustrating a difference of £248 a term between Peterhouse and St John's.

This figure of £248 is a far cry from the difference in the headline of £576. Just because your newspaper is tabloid-size doesn't mean you have to conform to tabloid principles of misinformation. In an article about rent, perhaps it would be nice to see a table giving average rents for each college. Indeed there is one. This gives the actual rents for St John's and Peterhouse as £798 and £550 respectively. Perhaps the headline is deliberately misleading?

The only additional figures we see are vacuous comparisons between the Kitchen Fixed Charges of some colleges. The KFC is a fee we pay to supplement the catering department. Clare students pay £93 a term, Magdalene students pay £130. I'd argue that actually these figures aren't startlingly different, especially given the fact that colleges are separate financial institutions.

Separate financial institutions are inevitably going to charge different prices for the same room. Not only that, but as the Bursar of St John's pointed out:

"It's so difficult to compare colleges, you're not comparing like with like." He defended the high rent paid by St John's students, pointing out "our rooms are bigger than at some other colleges."

We also have to factor in the fact that St John's is a much larger college than Peterhouse, with larger buildings to maintain. Inevitably these costs will be passed on to its tenants.

I think that the journalists really know they haven't got a very strong leg to stand on. They soon start interviewing people to try to prove their point. Here's a real gem:

"It's not our fault that we go to King's with its old accommodation."

Well, frankly, yes it is. You applied there. Supposing you were an applicant from "the pool" then you could still have turned down the place.

So there we are, a deliberately misleading article with the sole aim of inflaming anger.


Apologies if these posts seem a little confused. I'm using Firefox on a Linux machine at the Engineering Dept., and it's proving a little unwieldy.

Double Standards

This is really a continuation of the previous post, but I thought it was worth separating out.

How do we stop things like the drinks mentioned before, with labelling which is clearly contradictory and fundamentally, morally wrong? (Stop me if you think I'm making too big a deal over this). Well the answer is clear:

More government regulation.

But surely we've got enormous problems with this. We've got bananas which have got to be a certain shape. What do we do?

Less government regulation.

Hmm. This might not work out so well.


Today I bought a sandwich. It was a bit plain, and filled with rather too much salad for my liking. On the way out of the shop, I noticed an advert for some new fruit drinks.

"No additives," the label proclaimed, just under the bit which said "vitamin enriched."

Is it just me, or are these two statements incompatible? Perhaps vitamins aren't additives at all. Although, of course, they are themselves quite unfriendly chemicals which are toxic in higher doses.

I thought of this metaphor - vitamins are a little like oil in a car. They stop the body grinding to a halt, and generally lubricate life's natural processes. In high dosages, however, the engine will be ruined.

As soon as people realise that vitamins are just lubricants, the sooner we can stop these fad-dieting aggressively-marketed food products.

February 06, 2006


Here's a thought for a lazy afternoon.

  • Pornstars have lots of sexual intercourse
  • Pornstars are often well-endowed in a genital-related manner (so they tell me)

Thus I can conclude from these two facts that more sex will enhance the size of your manhood. And I think I put it far better than most of the spam emails.

Unfortunately, while this logic is valid, it isn't true. We've missed the vital point that pornstars only generally get to be pornstars because they are well-endowed (in a genital-related manner). Their being well-endowed is in fact the cause of their being pornstars, and thus of getting the opportunity for lots of sexual intercourse, not the other way round.

Identifying causality is an enormous problem, especially as human beings often relate otherwise unrelated events (think "coincidence"). If two events occurring at the same time, it doesn't mean that one causes the other.

Another example:

  • Autism often develops at 12-15 months (the figures may be wrong)
  • The MMR jab is usually given at 12-15 months

Thus we can conclude that Autism causes the MMR jab. I suppose we could conclude that the MMR jab causes Autism. You'd be wrong to do either, however, without more research into the underlying causes of both. Despite lots of anecdotal evidence, "They gave my child the jab and he went autistic the next day," the simultaneous occurrence of MMR and autism is a coincidence.

And here, and also here is some really rather good evidence.

BBC "journalism" Part 2 (of many)

I've finally worked out why all BBC writing looks childish, even when dealing with serious subject matter.

It's all in the way they split every single sentence into a separate paragraph.

Thus, they split up the text and make it difficult to read.

Not only this, but they destroy any logical paragraph structure from the writing.

Even I was taught that structure is the basis of a good essay.

Right, I've got to stop this now. It really is hard to maintain a continuous reasoned point when you separate it out every sentence. Sounds just like the BBC, then.

February 04, 2006

Manchester in quotes

"If you see someone in Manchester with a tan. Don't believe it. They've just gone rusty."

From here.

February 02, 2006

Stop the War!

I believe, fundamentally, that once the war in Iraq began, that the Stop the War Coalition should have disbanded itself. After all, the war had started.

The Iraq war has been the most polarising of recent times. All of a sudden, people who call themselves liberal have shifted to the right wing. Surely a war to bring democracy to a people ruled by the "Butcher of Baghdad" can only be positive? Surely all liberals would support a war of liberation. To which people say, "but it wasn't about that, it was about oil." I say to them:

"I don't care about the reasons for war in Iraq. I don't care if people thought it was illegal at the time [there's strong evidence that it was legal after all]. I don't care if a small number of people die in its execution, although I may shed a tear in private.

"I do care that there will be no more mass graves in Iraq, no more political terror, no more restrictions on peoples freedoms and beliefs. I care that women will be free to walk around freely, I care that a people has seized the chance to embrace democracy with enthusiasm and joy"

Yet many people, who before the war might have called themselves "left-wing," now find themselves defending Saddam, and suggesting that we were wrong to invade another countries sovereignty. Madmen like George Galloway have been given a platform to spread their extreme views.

I've ranted for a bit, here's the evidence. A letter from the Iraqi Communist party, posted by Norm:

"Our evaluation... is that in the prevailing circumstances and balance of forces in Iraq, there is no alternative process, other than the existing one, that offers a political prospect of restoring security and order in the country and puts it on the path of reconstruction and development.

"We have to note, with regret, that the Iraqi democratic forces have not received, in their difficult struggle, effective solidarity and support from international forces of the left."

Opinion Forming

Opinions are hard to shake. People reach conclusions based on a variety of evidence, but most often they are influenced strongly by others in their lives. Parents, friends, co-workers, leaders all spread their views to others, who lovingly lap up every word (either that or swear at them).

How aware are teachers and parents that their viewpoints may be adopted forever by another person? Are they careful to implant the right thoughts at an early age? For example, supposing parents held racist beliefs, would they nevertheless try to hide them from their children? Of course not. And thus is propogated an endless cycle of belief, which becomes very hard to shake. In this way teenage suicide bombers are sent into the world.

Once a person forms an opinion, they seek others with the same viewpoint. People naturally group with others of the same beliefs. Thus political parties are formed, thus student drinking societies.

Perhaps the biggest effect of this is that people automatically read media which conforms to their world-view. Liberals read the Indy or Grauniad, Conservatives read the Torygraph. "Outraged of Market Deeping" will be happiest buried in the Daily Mail.

The first step to understanding is knowledge. Just once, I dare you, go out and read somebody elses newspaper.