Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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( 'Nother Solent is this blog's good twin. Same words, searchable archives, RSS feed. Provided by a benefactor, to whom thanks.
I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)

The Old Comrades:

November 2001 December 2001 January 2002 February 2002 March 2002 April 2002 May 2002 June 2002 July 2002 August 2002 September 2002 October 2002 November 2002 December 2002 January 2003 February 2003 March 2003 April 2003 May 2003 June 2003 July 2003 August 2003 September 2003 October 2003 November 2003 December 2003 January 2004 February 2004 March 2004 April 2004 May 2004 June 2004 July 2004 August 2004 September 2004 October 2004 November 2004 December 2004 January 2005 February 2005 March 2005 April 2005 May 2005 June 2005 July 2005 August 2005 September 2005 October 2005 November 2005 December 2005 January 2006 February 2006 March 2006 April 2006 May 2006 June 2006 July 2006 August 2006 September 2006 October 2006 November 2006 December 2006 January 2007 February 2007 March 2007 April 2007 May 2007 June 2007 August 2007 October 2007 February 2008 April 2008 May 2008 June 2008 July 2008 September 2008 October 2008 November 2008 December 2008 January 2009 March 2009 May 2009 June 2009 July 2009 August 2009 October 2009 January 2010 March 2010 May 2010 June 2010 July 2010 August 2010 September 2010 October 2010 November 2010 December 2010 January 2011 February 2011 April 2011 June 2011 August 2011 September 2011 October 2011 November 2011 January 2012 February 2012 March 2012 April 2012 May 2012 June 2012 July 2012 August 2012 September 2012 October 2012 November 2012 December 2012 January 2013 February 2013 March 2013 April 2013 May 2013 June 2013 July 2013 August 2013 September 2013 October 2013 November 2013

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Tuesday, March 30, 2004
C and X. Jim writes:

Dear Natalie Solent-or-whatever-is-your-real-name-is,

On this blog, honey, I tingle with evil Solentoid Nataliness in every nerve and sinew!
Over 30 years ago undergraduate physics labs in Glasgow University were run on very similar lines to the Oxford system you describe.

Of course I never cheated and so have known for certain ever since that the true value of c is 231.4 mph, which means the Sun is only about 31 miles above our heads. You see, the Universe is so much smaller than these so-called experts keep trying to tell us. It all makes perfect sense.

But really I’m concerned about your apparent defection from cat to dog. How can you overlook the only alien species that lives among us, and clearly so intelligent too? Dogs may look up to us, but cats employ us as their servants. And you don’t have to take a cat for a walk. After all, they made it the full nine million miles from Alpha Centura by themselves.

My cat has allowed me to publish this laughable human delusion as part of her psyops strategy.

Friday, March 26, 2004
The House of War. Some people in Maryland really do live in the Darb al-Jihad.

There are dead rabbits everywhere. Dog-ownership reveals more joys each day. Our teeny dog Laptop is best pals with an enormous, friendly, enormous, bouncy, adorable, seriously enormous Retriever puppymonster who, in line with this blog's strict policy of total anonymity for companion animals, we shall call Dog X (not his real name). Dog X is the very soul of benevolence and charitable endeavour: he knows you want dead rabbits and he does his best to bring you them.

He doesn't hunt them; Mr Fox already did that. He just thinks his human deserves to be given a little extra-special snack for being such a good human. (And if he has a little something himself while he's at it, where's the harm?) What is astonishing is how many good deeds he can pack into a single walk. Did you know that every single field you see has dismembered bits of bunny somewhere in it?

If an aerial view of the average field were to be marked with two points, A, where Laptop and Dog X are let off the lead, and B, the last resting place of Mr Bun, then Dog X's path would be a geometrically perfect A-B straight line. Click goes the lead-clip, pazoom goes the dog, "Blank!" goes his owner. "Oh blank, he's seen a dead rabbit again. Oi! Come! Dog X (not your real name), you blanky dog, come!"

Alas for her hopes. In solidarity I add my voice to hers.

"Hee-ere Exey, Exey, Exey! C'mon boy, come..."

Totally bleeding useless thing to do. If he wouldn't come to her he's scarcely likely to come to me, is he? He ain't coming to no one until he gone done got that coney. Or as Herodotus might have said, neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays this courier from the swift completion of his appointed rabbit.

Laptop, in contrast, is not fully on-mission. His path from A to B would resemble a stretched out Slinky. He spirals round the singleminded Dog X loudly offering support and assistance, like a bit part saying "You go, champ!" to a Samurai girding himself to avenge his slain lord in single combat. Laptop thinks that running three times round a shrub shouting at it is a significant contribution.

While Laptop fights his rearguard action with the shrub, Dog X usually decides that safe carriage of the rabbit would be more efficiently achieved by swallowing it in one gulp. I thought only anacondas could do that. I guess there were a lot of things I didn't know about country life - but there you go, I really hadn't appreciated the melancholy abundance of dead rabbit until Dog X brought it home to me.

And regurgitated it at my feet. Thank you, Dog X.

Zimbabwe has started paying off the IMF. Whether this is a good or bad move for Zimbabwe I can't tell you. I don't know that sort of economics. However it gives the impression that things are not so desperate there as I thought.

Of course the 600% inflation isn't so hot.

Thursday, March 25, 2004
Why I love Nintendo Official Magazine UK: "There's this guy and he's called Mr Driller. He drills. That's what he does. He doesn't muck about with other, non-drill-related things. He drops into a deep well filled with blocks which look like sweets and he drills. Down and down he goes, until he reaches the bottom or is crushed by falling blocks. The end."

- From a review of a game called, surprisingly, Mr Driller Drill Land.

Just how bad was it in Saddam's Iraq? Black Triangle links (scroll right down) to two surveys that give you some idea. These are separate from the BBC/ABC poll that everyone's heard about. The first samples the extent of human rights violations:
Overall, 47% of those interviewed reported 1 or more of the following abuses among themselves and household members since 1991: torture, killings, disappearance, forced conscription, beating, gunshot wounds, kidnappings, being held hostage, and ear amputation, among others.
The second survey asked how many doctors participated in human rights abuses:
The survey found that physicians had falsified medical-legal reports in cases of alleged torture, performed physical mutilation as a form of punishment, and falsified death certificates
A few of the doctors admitted doing these things themselves.

He didn't want to die. This report from the Guardian tells how a Palestinian boy loaded with explosives surrendered to Israeli troops.

It seems that Hassam Mohammed Hufni (also called Hussam Abdo in some reports) is somewhat "simple" as country people used to say. No doubt his limited intelligence made him easy to manipulate - but when the time came, perhaps it saved him and others: the poisonous rhetoric that convinces most suicide bombers to override pity for their victims and their own desire for life could not get a grip in his more innocent mind.

Although the reigning ideology of Palestinian jihad loudly states that the best possible end for any Palestinian is to die while killing and the purpose of Palestinian existence is to be fuel for the fire, it is clear that the bomb-masters feel certain categories of Palestinian are more disposable than others. There was another case a few weeks ago where a woman caught in adultery was directed to "redeem" herself by carrying out a suicide bombing.

I can't help wondering what this boy's future will be - now that he has one. It is not clear whether the Hufni family knew or approved of his being used as a suicide bomber. They may well have. Present day Palestinian family life admits of many forms. Perhaps it seemed a profitable way to offload a liability, since even though Saddam Hussein's cash payments to the families of suicide bombers have ceased other payments continue. Any doubts could be assuaged by the thought that they wouldn't have to worry about the boy any more because he'd go straight to heaven.

But I don't know that is the case at all. Some family members of suicide bombers have dared in their grief to speak out, despite the pervasive fear. They have said they didn't know and that if they had known they would have begged their son or daughter not to do it. We won't know whether those Palestinians who shared ordinary human values were the vast majority or a bare majority or a minority or a tiny minority until, in some future time scarcely imaginable now, Palestinians have a free society. (Note I do not specify under what political arrangement this happy state might occur. You might be surprised how vague my opinions on the matter are. )

If Hassam's family did know, surely he cannot be returned to them. In any case I do not know what the the famous "Palestinian Street" does to suicide bombers who change their mind, but I doubt it's anything good.

Despite all this, we can still say "where there's life there's hope." Hassam Mohammed Hufni has life and may yet hope to make something good of it. Already he has turned aside from making something very bad of it, which is more than many manage.

My respects to the Israeli soldiers who showed him mercy at considerable risk to themselves.

UPDATE: It emerges that his family didn't know, and they are glad to have him back alive. However their objection was not to suicide bombings per se, but to their son doing them.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004
My career as an academic cheat and fraudulent examiner. Brian Micklethwait has up a few comments about cheating in academia. I thought it might benefit the common weal if I described my own experiences. And if you didn't know before that "Natalie Solent" was a pseudonym, you do now.

In the Oxford physics course of twenty-plus years ago practical work was done in pairs. You and your practical partner would work through a set course of well-known physics experiments, writing up your results in a file. Some experiments everyone had to do; others were optional but you had to complete a fixed number of them. The "kits" for each experiment had been around for donkey's years. It was common practice for the second year science students to sell their practical files to the freshers.

My main motive for cheating was lunch. When you and your partner had completed your experiment you went to get it signed off by a graduate student called a demonstrator, who was meant to discuss the experiment with you. If in the experiment just finished you discovered that the speed of light was what everyone thought it was then the demonstrator chatted about physics for ten minutes and then let you go. If, however, you had recorded a value for c of seventy-three miles per hour then the demonstrator would enthusiastically set out to dismantle the entire experiment until he either confirmed your result and discovered the hyperdrive or found out where you had gone wrong. Hungry undergraduates liked the first option better.

The difficulty about getting to lunch was that most physics experiments have to be thumped to make them work right. This fact is widely known, was true for acknowledged greats such as Millikan, but is not often admitted. That was why the second year students' files were so useful: knowing what the answers were meant to be helped enormously in getting them. (Remember that the second years themselves had almost certainly copied their results from earlier generations of students. ) Of course, you couldn't copy the earlier account word for word.

I never heard of anyone faking an experiment from beginning to end. Your absence from the lab would certainly have been noticed, you would not have had the minimum real-life experience of the experiment necessary to get past the demonstrator and, despite the prevailing dishonesty, that would have been regarded as going too far. My practical partner and I would work quite hard until the bloody thing started to go wrong. Even then we'd pummel the apparatus about for a while, hoping to convince it to yield the result in the book. But usually in the end we'd give up and go back to college to get to work producing a convincing fake.

A forgery is often true art. Sometimes I almost thought I learned more about physics in the process of constructing a plausible account of an experiment I had not completed than I would have learned in doing it. You had to ensure that the answer was off, but not too much off. You had to be ready to answer questions.

There was one particular experiment designed to teach us about statistics where you had to let a small ball drop out of a funnel and mark where it hit or something like that about a thousand times over. Then all the results for everyone were collected together and would, it was hoped, combine to display a nice bell curve. A rumour I heard said that one year the bell curve had a little subsidiary peak to one side of it. The authorities were very shocked. They thought the subsidiary peak represented all those who'd copied results from earlier years.

Wrong-o. The big peak showed that. The little peak belonged to the honest students.

Eventually, I became an honest student. For one thing, it was dawning on me that all the work involved in artistic fakery was actually more boring than being in the lab. So boring, in fact, that we got sloppy. One awful day found my partner and I seated in front of a demonstrator with a set of results in front of us which hadn't even been decently faked. We had not changed the final result from the whatever our particular pair of second year predecessors had put down. The demonstrator talked amiably about the experiment for a while then got out a big lined record book and wrote down our names and result at the foot a column of earlier results.

I forget which of us spotted our peril first, or by what desperate telepathy she communicated it to the other - but within half a second we were wordlessly conveying to each other that we were finished. Doomed. Dead meat. The only question was when the axe would fall.

Our result was only two lines below the one we'd copied it from. The two were identical to three decimal places, a physical impossiblity or damn nearly so.

Our demonstrator hadn't spotted it yet but eventually somebody would. There would be only one possible explanation.

Calling on the reserves of dramatic ability that come to the aid of the most indifferent of actors faced with a situation where they must lie to save their skins, we got through the remainder of the demonstrator's questions. He wanted his lunch, too.

We weren't hungry any more. It's amazing how suddenly previously remote concepts like "cheating" and "being sent down" can come to life when your doom is written in a book lying on a desk waiting for any idly curious soul to read. A quick council of war in the corridor had revealed a shaft of hope: our result was written in pen, but the old result was written in pencil. If we could get hold of the book and alter the old result to something different, we'd be fairly safe.

Have you ever stolen anything? When it's not a game it's harder than you think it's going to be. But we managed to get the book and both of us into the privacy of a cubicle of the nearby ladies' lavatory about five minutes later. Our situation gave us several reasons to work as fast as we could before anyone came round. The old result was rubbed out - it is dreadfully difficult to do that neatly when working at speed on a lavatory seat - and a new one substituted. Done, done, but we weren't safe yet. We had to get the book back on the table. Before that we had to get out of the lavatory. This was getting harder by the minute. There were footsteps everywhere. The lab was filling up after lunch and, if caught, our reasons for leaving the same cubicle simultaneously might prove awkward to put into words. I hope you will not think ill of my tolerance if I say that the consequences of giving the most easily available false explanation seemed scarcely more appealing than those following on from giving the true one - and there was simply no explaining away the book. We had several false starts, but eventually we got out and walked the long five yards down the corridor and plonked the book back on the desk.

Outside, safe and free, I stated pretty firmly that I never, ever wanted to be in that situation again. My partner said likewise. I'd like to claim that shame as well as fear was involved, but I think that only came later. Anyway, I started really doing the experiments right through to the end. Most of the time I still couldn't make them work but the long post-mortems no longer seemed so bad.

One experiment I remember well (perhaps because it actually worked eventually) was intended to demonstrate the Hanle Effect. When I got past the initial stages of this one I found some crucial components were missing. I had to go to a lot of trouble to get what I needed and re-fit them in the bowels of the apparatus. The interior was very dusty. It was clear to me that no one had done the latter part of the experiment for years - yet people were on the books as having done it.

By the time I left university I was quite proud of my practical file, with a particular shamefaced pride I could not admit. The assessment of the final year experiments counted towards the degree, if I've remembered right, and my hard- and by now honestly-earned practical grade was well above the unimpressive results of the rest of my degree. It still makes me sad to recall that I forgot to reclaim my file when I left, so that what may have been the first genuine Oxford undergraduate account of the Hanle Effect experiment in years is now part of a landfill site.

Someone told me that they cleaned out the Augean stables a few years after I left. Some unfortunate chemist got caught and made an example of, and the system of scrutiny for science practicals was tightened up til it squeaked.

I mustn't forget that I also promised to tell you how dishonest I was as an examiner. Actually, I was cheating a little when I said that. I really, truly, honestly can't remember if I actually did mark a candidate dishonestly or not. This is how it happened, if it did at all. I was a teacher invigilating the GCSE Physics practical for the class I taught. I had a check list for each child asking whether he or she had done and/or recorded a list of required actions. The marks I entered in my check list counted towards their final result. One of the girls, a really nice kid, hardworking and, if not of the first rank academically, certainly not thick, had made an initial error in setting up her experiment that was propagating itself through all she did.

Oh, the pity of it. She generally understood physics pretty well. She'd just messed up today. Still, today's result was what I was marking. There was nothing I could do...

... Or maybe there was. Perhaps the fact that this girl's home language was not English could come to her rescue. Because I knew her and knew how she talked I could tell that a key part of her account of her experiment was simply wrong and showed a basic misunderstanding. However all her English was sufficiently bad that I could just about make a case that she understood OK, she just had expressed it badly. In those days bad English wasn't marked down in a Physics exam. I could gain her a few marks anyway, maybe just above to inch her above a C.

It would be a shaky case but I was unlikely ever to have to make it. Only a certain proportion of the exam scripts were moderated by an external examiner.

Here my mind goes blank. Did I sell such of my academic soul as was left unsold from my previous activities? Or did I just think about it and then pull back? I can remember the sun slanting down onto the honey-coloured wood of the lab bench. I can remember the crumbly old red rubber of a three-prong clamp on a grey steel pole and the reflection of the window in the face of a stopwatch, although not, funnily enough, what the actual experiment was. I can't remember what sign my pen made.

Whatever I did, I wasn't motivated by fear or ambition, the usual motives that prompt teachers to up their pupils' results. By that time I was pretty sure that a teacher's life was not for me and next year I'd be off to pastures new. I was motivated by niceness.

The academic world has to be protected from nice people like me.

There endeth my confession. I suppose that I ought to have entitled this piece "My career as a reformed cheat and possible fraudulent examiner only I can't remember whether I was or not." But attention-grabbing titles aren't cheating, they're art.

UPDATE: Want to see the view from the other side of the hill? The same post of Brian's that I linked to independently inspired David Gillies to recount his experience of being a demonstrator discovering massive cheating by students.

The comments to that post are also fascinating. Wobbly Guy offers a defence of the custom of passing on one's file to the next cohort. It's true that reading up on a previous account of the experiment and using it to structure your own procedure is not in itself bad - after all if a keen student reads up on how whatever pioneer of science first did the experiment in question then he should be praised. But file-sharing in the old-fashioned sense makes it perilously easy to lie about having done it at all and/or to copy blindly, as Wobbly Guy admits.

Drat. Posting mixup. Much copying and deleting going on to cure it. Ignore the timestamps of the last few posts. I mean, in so far as you didn't ignore them anyway.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004
De mortuis nil nisi bonum. Or, as Harold Laski once put it, De mortuis nil nisi bunkum. Scott Burgess compares two obituaries for Sheikh Yassin. The one by David Hirst in the Guardian ought to be preserved in formaldehyde, to stand in some future cabinet of curiosities beside all those adoring obituaries in the western press for J V Stalin.

UPDATE: David Carr has more. Wipe away a tear as David mourns for the the Sheikh Yassin we knew and loved.

Heinlein. Glory Road. Can't remember the exact quote, but at the orders of the Empress this guy is taken outside and killed and Oscar says, "I was so upset that I had to have another cup of coffee."

They got Yassin. Milk, no sugar. Instant will do fine.

True when you think about it. Before making a visit I thought it best to give my children a little briefing. I wanted to make sure they avoided a topic of conversation that might have been painful for our hosts. "So," I concluded, "we must all be very tactful." A sudden thought struck me: "You do know what the word 'tactful' means, don't you?"

"Yes," said my son, a keen player of Age of Empires. "It means having good tactics."

Monday, March 22, 2004
L'affaire Matt Cavanagh. In his latest post Chris Bertram of Crooked Timber gives the background to, and an unedited version of, his letter in today's Guardian.

I agree with every word of his letter. Paticularly the bit about scavenging for soundbites that the Guardian edited out.

Judging from what I've read in blogs and the press about Cavanagh's unreconstructed views, he did not put forward the standard libertarian argument that to forbid racial discrimination is to violate the human right of free association. (The standard libertarian view is the view I hold. It is quite compatible with thinking that in all but a few special situations racial discrimination is morally wrong, a view I also hold.) According to Edward Lucas in a letter further down the page, "We invited Mr Cavanagh [to the ICA debate that started all the fuss] as a leftwing critic of equality of opportunity. He argued, for example, that it leads to an overemphasis on competition between individuals."

In other words the views I hold would be even more likely than Mr Cavanagh's to be described as pyschotic by David Winnick MP, a member of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee. As described by the Guardian this prominent Labour MP's own views appear close to totalitarian. He does not merely think it is pyschotic to oppose the discrimination laws he thinks it is psychotic even to question them.

That's us lot for the loony bin then.

Still, you never know with the Guardian. Tomorrow we might be treated to the amusing spectacle of Mr Winnick saying that he was quoted out of context, just like Mr Cavanagh before him.

(This whole affair seemed to me to bring out so well the intolerance of the Establishment view of tolerance that I've just cross-posted it to Samizdata.)

Sunday, March 21, 2004
Our European future. A German investigative journalist, Hans-Martin Tillack, was arrested and held without access to a lawyer for ten hours by the Belgian police. What was he investigating? EU corruption, of course. He was the guy who broke the Eurostat story. Here's what the International Federation of Journalists had to say. Here's the EU Observer report on the story. Terrance Coyle knows Hans-Martin Tillack personally. He notes that the main Brussels paper didn't even mention the arrest. He says, speaking of the whole affair, that "this is scary."

Now I don't want to contribute to a climate of hysteria. Herr Tillack has now been released. He wasn't roughed up. It seems that Belgian law permits or possibly even demands that suspects not be given access to a lawyer for the first day after arrest. True, all Herr Tillack's files have been scrutinized by the police and the names of his sources must have been noted, but there is talk of a law that is more protective of sources being passed soon. The authorities most likely were simply trying to stymie his investigation before the law was passed.

You're right. It's still scary.

Friday, March 19, 2004
I don't feel too well today, so this is your lot: Letter to the Pocket Man by Tony Woodlief of Sand in the Gears.
That little pocket is like a Roach Motel for keys; they check in, but they don't check out. To release them I have to drag the entire pocket apparatus out of my pants and tug, pry, and curse. My children don't need to see this.

Furthermore, you need to understand something about decent people. When they see a grown man hunched at the waist, straining and tugging at his crotch region, they don't generally look closely enough to see exactly what he's doing. So even though I'm doing nothing more than trying to get MY keys back from YOUR little pocket prison, I look like a pervert to my fellow citizens. Being neither a street person nor the 42nd president of the United States, this is a humiliation to which I have been unable to grow accustomed.
"Sand in the Gears" is by turns very funny and very moving.

Thursday, March 18, 2004
Vaccines and Evolution. Jo, a.k.a. Squander Two writes:
One thing that you haven’t mentioned about vaccinations (unless it was in an older post and I missed it, ’cause I’ve been a tad occupied of late), is this fact about the nature of bacteria and viruses: they evolve. Yes, it is certainly true that, the fewer people who are vaccinated, the more prevalent the disease becomes, but that doesn’t really get around libertarian arguments: it’s still up to the individual whether they wish to defend themselves against the disease, and that’s fair enough. (Are libertarians supposed to support a parent’s “right” to risk their child’s life, though? Anyway.) The far more serious problem is that, the more prevalent a disease becomes, the greater the opportunity for the organisms that cause that disease to evolve to the extent that they may eventually be able to beat the vaccines. At that point, choice is simply removed from the system for everyone, as those who choose vaccination find that it is useless to do so – and that’s why vaccinations are a genuine public good.

Successful evolution is what has made it impossible to eradicate influenza while smallpox is now effectively extinct. Flu mutates a lot quicker, coming up with a new variation every year, immune to the previous year’s vaccine. One of the main reasons flu is able to do this so effectively is that Chinese farmers keep ducks and pigs in close proximity and pigs can catch both duck flu and human flu. The two varieties of virus meet up in the pig, swap a few genes, turn into a hybrid virus that combines all the strengths of the previous two and is sufficiently different to them both to be immune to vaccines that worked on them, and jump back from pigs to humans. It then spreads from China to the rest of the world. (No, vaccination wouldn’t prevent this one, but it’s still a nice example of the problem, and I thought you might find it interesting.)

Something doctors have had a lot of trouble persuading AIDS patients of is that two HIV+ men having sex should use a condom. Both men think, “I’ve already got HIV, and so’s he, so what’s the problem?” The problem is that there are a number of different strains of HIV, and unprotected sex between carriers allows those strains to meet up and swap genes, thus producing more powerful hybrid strains – which is already happening. Eventually, a significant number of patients will end up with a new type of HIV that proves resistant to existing anti-HIV drugs.

So, at the moment, we’re talking about a vaccine that protects against measles. And, as long as measles remains a rare, non-epidemic disease, that will continue to be the case. But, once it becomes an epidemic, there is a significant chance that we will be up against an increasing number of different diseases in the measles group, and, eventually, we could find that our vaccine doesn’t work on one of them. And that’s the one that’ll sweep through the population.

If there’s a libertarian out there that has an explanation of how this could be managed by property rights, I’d love to hear it. But, as far as I can see, this is one thing that does come under government’s remit: it boils down to protecting people from other people, after all.

I should just add that, in spite of my affected air of authority, I am not a biologist or an epidemiologist or anything like that, so, if someone with more credentials than me (or any credentials at all, really) contradicts any of the little details in what I’ve written, they’re right and I’m wrong. But the main gist of what I’m saying is certainly true.

Airbrushing out De Gaulle. March 10 was the sublime moment when the internet allowed Terrance of Fainting in Coyles to leave duty as a something or other in Brussels and enter destiny. That was when he fisked this unintentionally hilarious speech to commemorate the Entente Cordiale. And if you think my "sublime moment" stuff was OTT, read the speech.

Two letters on doggy poo. Not really, they came on e-mail.

Peter Cuthbertson writes:
I suspect you were more on target than you realised when you wrote of the "hottest political issues of our times".

In a lecture on political participation, my politics professor assured us that dog mess is revealed to be a major, MAJOR concern of a great many people whenever big efforts are made to understand what issues people care about and want sorted out.

Make of that what you will ...

Ed writes:
Now, to move on, what's all this about dog s**t? I live where no council has yet had the temerity to put one of those basket things- probably because they'd get left for many a stinky week before emptying. I did however once get roped into taking someone's dog for walks around the suburbs of York. I couldn't believe it when she handed me the trowel and a plastic bag, having never had contact with it (if you know what I mean) before. I'm not sure it's all fine and dandy either: people are prissy enough as it is, without humbling themselves in service to the suburbs with fastidious s**t-shovelling. I mean, drunkeness is an epidemic, and people apparently openly poo and wee and puke in the streets, but the next day they'll all remember to scoop their dog poop for the community. Irony of Ironies when it's human poop we're more likely to step in. Genetically modified dogs must be the way forward- to poop less, and more like rabbits in consistency.
Quite. Yes. A project like this could restore the profession of Mad Gene-Splicer to public esteem. Raising the tone a little, I've long thought that living teddy bears would be cute.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004
Chongryun. Run a Google search for this euphonious term and you will learn a strange story.

Back in World War II thousands of Koreans ended up in Japan, some taken by force as slave labour or "comfort women", others driven to emigrate by poverty. Their descendants, embittered by their experiences and by Japanese racial prejudice, stayed a race apart. In the fifties they pledged their loyalty to the Northern, Communist half of their divided homeland and with support from the North set up their own schools and social organisations under an umbrella body called "Chongryun."

Ironically these devoted acolytes of Kim Il Sung grew rich by the most capitalist of means. Chongryun-operated (I had to change that from "Chongryun-run") North Korean clothes factories at one time had a quarter of the Japanese market and many Koreans made a mint from pachinko parlours.

Chongryun is still going. It has declined, gradually for decades, as North Korea's star waned and South Korea's waxed, and steeply in the last year in the light of suspicions that it had a hand in facilitating the abduction of several Japanese to tutor North Korean spies (which is another irony considering that many of the Koreans are themselves descended from abductees). Yet the number of Korean-Japanese children presently attending Chongryun schools is not around seventy-six as I would have thought but tens of thousands.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004
A thought I had while walking the dog. And while I thought, the dog acted.

I know you come to this blog for discussion of all the hottest political issues of our times, so here goes.

When I was a kid the idea of cleaning up after a dog had done its business in the street would have been regarded as only slightly less loopy than a dairy farmer going out into his field every morning and scooping up all the cow-pats. In those days all the dog-owner had to do to get his or her good citizen badge was drag the animal next to a lampost rather than letting it go right in the middle of the pavement. Nowadays things are different. I, like every dog owner I know, go out armed with a trusty plastic bag and, should the dog perform, add to the contents of the receptacles provided by the council.

Not everybody does, of course. I like to think that my friends are statistically skewed towards civic virtue. But it's undeniable that a rather large and rather good change in public behaviour has taken place. Furthermore the change was almost entirely voluntary and is enforced not by law but by social disapproval of those who break the rules. Sure, there is a sign on the poopy pot threatening a fine of £100 for letting your dog foul a public place but actual prosecutions are rare.

The physical infrastructure of bins and men in vans who empty them was provided by the council but could easily be organised privately. For all I know it already is, by private companies with whom the council has a contract.

So it's all quite nice and libertarian and now I think I'll talk about something else.

Monday, March 15, 2004
I've mocked Stephen Byers in the past. I'm not mocking him now. This scathing attack on the Max Hastings article I posted about last Thursday makes me think a lot better of Byers.

Both Hastings' article and Byers' response appeared in the Guardian. I get the feeling there's a fair amount of shouting goes on across Alan Rusbridger's desk.

Talking of Hastings, it's dawning on me that the Great White Hunter has a bit of a thing about invitations. Mark Steyn reminded me of this article on the capture of Saddam Hussein where Hastings spake thus:

‘It is hard not to hate George Bush. His ignorance and conceit, his professed special relationship with God, invite revulsion.’
Really? For some reason I find myself imagining something like this:


Dear Revulsion & Friends

George Bush, his ignorance and conceit and his professed special relationship with God

will be

At Home

2-5pm this Saturday.

P.S. Guys, it's me really doing the inviting, Max!!! Only I don't want to say so because people might not want to come if they knew it was my idea. But I can trust you lot because you are Guardian readers, right ;-) Nudge nudge wink wink, eh!

The Scottish Executive is hard at work. This august body is considering whether it should rule that Scottish teachers should scrap grades for essays and replace them with comments. The Scotsman reports:
Such classroom trauma [getting a C minus] may be consigned to history under plans being considered by ministers to banish the use of grades on pupils’ work and replace them with constructive written critiques.

This might be a good idea for all I know, or a good idea in many cases. Or it might be rubbish. Either way, why in the name of all that's holy are government ministers girding their loins to decide what red scribbles will appear on every schoolbook in Scotland? What do they know?

And did you notice the overwhelming statistical evidence from down South that prompted, nay forced, the Scottish Executive to turn their mighty brains to this vital topic?

The results of the King’s College study, which involved 24 teachers at six schools in the south of England, had seen clear overall improvement in pupils’ abilities after they had been taught for six-months using this method.

A Victory for Al-Qaeda in Spain. Believe me, I don't like saying this. I don't like doing this. Once the line that "A vote for party X is a vote for the terrorists" gets into the political process it makes things much more vituperative. It breaks down the mutual assumption of good intentions that keeps peaceful discourse peaceful. It also puts people who want to vote for party X on the grounds of economic policy or some other respectable reason in an extremely difficult position. Yet helping to put that line into the political process is exactly what I am doing (within my tiny sphere) as I write this post.

Why am I doing it then? Because, unfortunately, my dislike of the message does not change its truth: Al-Qaeda are happy today. Terrorism worked. Clearly, obviously, educationally, it worked. The Spanish electorate let it work on them. My everlasting sympathy for the victims of the mass murder does not change that truth. My sympathy for the people who may have wanted to vote against the Popular Party for all sorts of decent reasons does not change that truth.

How many times in history has the same pattern repeated itself? While the enemy mass at the borders the small countries cower and dodge. In public they talk of alliances, of standing together, but in at the same time each nation tries to hint to Khan or Sultan that, as your Highness surely knows, we are not the leaders... we are just small fry... perhaps we can work together... you don't want to go for us...

Pained but relieved each little nation watches as the next blow of the enemy falls not on them but on their neighbour. Until their turn comes.

It's the same story now, except that the notion of borders has become irrelevant.

Keep safe, as they are fond of saying on the TV. Keep safe now! A good way of doing that might be to stay off the trains in the week before your country's next election.

Saturday, March 13, 2004
About Spain... sometimes you think about a thing a lot but really it's just the same thought going round and round.

In this post and the posts below it Normblog brings together some accounts of the victims of the train bombings.

What can I say? They sound like they were ordinary people. Like you and me and people we know. Except that their lives were cruelly cut short and ours continue.

Friday, March 12, 2004
"It's difficult to teach them physics, so let's teach them "about" physics."
Kevin Richardson writes.. er, actually wrote an embarrassingly long time ago:
I was interested to read your piece on physics education both as an ex physics teacher (I taught it for eight years, up to 1980) and as the father of an 11 year old son who is about to transfer to secondary school this year.

The A level syllabus you linked to makes interesting reading. Of course it's hard to get a real feeling for the academic standard just by looking at a syllabus, but it did strike me that much it was material I remember teaching for O level. It makes me wonder what the kids have actually been doing in their first five years of secondary education.

I used to teach the Nuffield Physics syllabus both at O and A level, and your post prompted me to dig up a couple of books I used to use.

Taking year 10 (as it wasn't called in those days) as an example, in mechanics we covered the equations of uniformly accelerated motion, Newton's Laws, Bernoulli's principle. momentum, explosions and collisions (including illustrations with cloud chamber tracks), rockets, jets, kinetic energy and power. These were illustrated with lots of demonstrations, class experiments and calculations.

We went on to look at the kinetic theory of gases and the derivation (using earlier work on momentum) of pV = Nmv^{2}/3 for an ideal gas. From a simulation of random walk, and observing the speed of diffusion of bromine through air, we arrived at an estimate of the mean free path in air and and hence a rough estimate of the size of a typical air molecule and atom.

I don't suppose this question from the end of the chapter would be allowed in one of today's text books:

"Trying to measure the diameter of an atom may not be unlike measuring the size of your waist with a tape measure, especially if you are one of the fair sex. Why?"

Also in year 10 we covered heat, including specific heat capacity and latent heat, and conservation of energy. Then there was electrical circuits, Ohm's law, and electrical power. This included the concept of internal resistance and the distinction between potential difference and EMF. It led onto electrons, the Cathode Ray Oscilloscope and Millikan's experiment to measure the charge on the election.

In the contemporary syllabus you linked to, I see that circular motion and centripetal force only appear in an A2 module, which I assume means the second year of the sixth form. We covered this in year 11, along with a substantial module on theories of the Solar System (from the ancient Greeks onward) and including Kepler's Laws.

In your post you mentioned Snell's Laws. The Nuffield O level syllabus covered this in year 9, along with lots of optics, including reflection, refraction, diffraction and telescopes. This was developed with ray diagrams and key formulae such as Snell's law and the lens equation.

In the Nuffield year 3 Guide to Experiments there is a demonstration of refraction using the "marching model". The requirements for the experiment are listed as

1. Asphalt road with area of soft grass adjoining.

2. Squad of boys

3. Discipline

"The boys are to be arranged in parallel rows of 6 and are to be marched at an angle, from the road into the grass. On entering the grass they are to maintain the same frequency of step but decrease their step length to half. Refraction of the lines of boys will be seen to occur."

The Guide even reckons that you can achieve total internal reflection by marching them from the grass towards the road. However it doesn't go so far as to claim that you can use the method to arrive at Snell's Law!

I did my teaching in grammar schools. Even there, the syllabus was regarded as quite difficult and academic, and some children struggled. But for the ones who could cope I think it was an excellent grounding in the subject.

I think the decline of proper physics teaching in the state sector over the past thirty years is so sad. It seems to me that the virtual abolition of the grammar schools has had a lot to do with it. Teaching a "hard" academic subject such as physics may not seem such an attractive proposition if you are faced with doing it across the ability range.

As a result it often gets taught by non-physicists whose conceptual grasp of the subject is superficial. Its difficulty leads to a temptation to dilute the hard academic material with non-physics elements, as you pointed out.

One other thing - and obviously a matter of far greater importance than the scientific education of the future generation - what is the plural of syllabus? I vaguely remembered that this depends on whether "syllabus" is second declension, in which case the plural would be "syllabi", or fourth declension, in which case it would be "syllabus". On looking around I found the following link:


This claims that "syllabus" originally occurred as a misprint of a Greek accusative plural in a fifteenth century edition of Cicero. Since it's not really a proper Latin word at all, the plural ought to be "syllabuses". (Or perhaps "specifications".)

There, in more detail than I could have hoped to provide, is backing for my most melancholy suspicions about physics teaching (and syllathingies).

Physics is difficult. (Confession: it was a bit too difficult for me in the end.) But there is scope for that very difficulty to be one of its selling points to both students and employers. I think what the subject needs is a little constructive macho. When you walk in to your first ever GCSE class the theme tune to "The Right Stuff" should be playing.

A libertarian argument not to force vaccines. Alan M Robertson (who was "divorced from the web for two years" but is now reconciled) writes:
am now on day four of my blog. I didn't know what to write about. So I dredged up some old material inspired by one of your comments. In finding your comment, I read your most recent posts.

I stopped reading you? What was I thinking?


I saw your posts about vaccines. It seems to me that if I am one of the few to vaccinate myself, when the malady strikes, I will be one of the few to not catch it. While such wholesale sickness may be bad as a society as a whole, only people that chose to not vaccinate themselves will get sick. Vaccinations cause pain and risk further injury. No one should have the right to do that to me. If someone wants to avoid the flu, they should stick the needle in their arm, not mine.

Heh. Instapundit posts on a Seattle Post Intelligencer headline so biased it's funny.

The story beneath the headline was by the Associated Press, and Jim Miller says the bias from the AP is worse than that of the Seattle P-I.

... and a (presumably Republican) reader of the Corner has a personal reason for objecting to being held responsible for the actions of one's second cousins.

There were no posts on Wednesday because I was busy. Then on Thursday I got stuck in to quite a long post about Max Hastings... 80% of which was eaten by the computer, despite being (I could have sworn) safely posted-but-not-published in the bottom window. It seemed best to walk away from the computer rather than scream and curse any more than I already had. I have tried to reconstitute the post below from memory. If the original one reappears, why then I'll have two.

While I'm here let me say that if time permits today I'll try and post some of the interesting emails I have received.

Thursday, March 11, 2004
Max Hastings' little joke. Max Hastings is in the Guardian today, flattering its readers:
In this country, only the Guardian and Independent deal thoroughly with what is taking place, and display real sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. Elsewhere a lot of space is given to apologias for Israeli conduct, some of which reveal a contempt for Palestinian human rights that invites the most baleful of historical comparisons.
"Invites." That carefully unattributed verb; how sweetly put. You are talking about the Holocaust, right? (That's the "most baleful of historical comparisons" that comes to my mind, certainly. It's a peculiarly indirect phrase to use if he means anything else and I don't for a moment think that he does mean anything else. ) The Holocaust, if you remember, regularly killed more Jews in an hour than the entire Palestinian death toll over many decades of conflict with Israel.

The thing about invitations is that you don't have to issue them and you don't have to accept them. Discretion in this respect keeps you out of bad company.

A similar point about responsibility runs through this post commenting on Hastings' article by Norman Geras. Here is an excerpt:

And there was I imagining that it is those who propagate, embrace and excuse anti-Semitism who are the real culprits.

Hastings is also a 'despair that finds its only outlet in terrorism' man. It's funny that way, despair: it does that when it does, but when it doesn't it doesn't; and none of Hastings' tribe ever says why.

In the unlikely event that Max Hastings ever reads this he will have an answer ready:
They make the cardinal error of identifying the Jewish people with the Israeli government, wilfully confusing anti-semitism and anti-Zionism. Often, they seem to demand that the behaviour of Israel should be judged by a special standard, that allows the likes of Sharon and Netanyahu a special quota of excesses, in compensation for past sufferings.
But Mr Hastings has erected a straw man. It is so commonplace as to be a cliché to begin an article condemning the modern Jew-hatred by making the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism - and by making the distinction between anti-Zionism and opposition to the current policies of the current Israeli government, a distinction that Mr Hastings blurs. I for one do not wish Israel to be judged by a special standard. I wish it to be judged by the same standard as other nations. And by that standard I see that Israel's retaliation for Palestinian terrorism is far less indiscriminate than Russia's retaliation for Chechen terrorism - yet it is Israel that academics boycott, not Russia. I see that for the last half century Arab regimes have slaughtered Arabs in their thousands (Anyone but me remember the way Syria crushed the uprising at Hama? There were estimates at the time of eighty thousand dead. At least some people do remember the crimes of Saddam Hussein!) - yet it is not these killer regimes that are denounced in the UN but Israel. I see that Israel has universal suffrage, a free press, an independent judiciary and Arab members sitting in the Knesset - yet it is regularly called an "apartheid state." I see that Western PC activists will hound people out of their jobs for scarcely discernible or even unconscious offences against racial ettiquette - yet the same activists shrug their shoulders at a tide of anti-Jew racist speech and writing the likes of which hasn't been seen since the Nazi era, and which in many instances literally is Nazi, being translated or recycled Nazi propaganda and conspiracy-mongering. Finally I see again and again Israel being called a Nazi country which displays... oh, I won't go on. Others have denounced the odiousness of this comparison better than I could. I shall content myself with saying that at the very least it displays an inability to count big numbers.

Hey, but maybe I should be less uptight, relax a bit, have a laugh about it all... d'you know, I think I will. Max Hastings lecturing in the Guardian (the Guardian!) about racial prejudice is pretty funny really, and here's a little wee anecdote that explains why.

Until recently Mr Hastings hadn't made any striking impression on my mind. I knew his name, naturally. It first came to my notice when he reported from the Falklands War, which I think he did well. After that I knew he was editor of the Evening Standard and then the Telegraph. Also I knew he had written books of popular history about the Second World War. I knew I had read a good many of his columns but couldn't remember specific ones. That was about it Hastings-wise for me. All that changed, however, when my husband came back from the library with a book of light-hearted hunting and shooting memoirs by Hastings called "Scattered Shots". As I may have mentioned, I like target shooting but am far too soft-hearted to hunt. Nonetheless I am quite happy to read books about it, and Hastings' book is extremely entertainingly written. At times I wondered whether Hastings had come under a miasma similar to the one that hung over P.G. Wodehouse's Bludleigh Court (and had power to get the local representative of Our Dumb Brothers League of Mercy up for an impromptu badger-baiting party at three in the morning), so great is Hastings' enthusiasm for blasting the local wildlife.

But not all his jokes are funny. Somewhere in "Scattered Shots" he tells a golfing story. (The book has gone back to the library so you are going to have to do without page numbers.) It seems that one time a golf ball struck by Mr Hastings landed straight on some unfortunate man's head, knocking him out cold for a few minutes. Fortunately the victim was a forgiving sort and having come round he said dazedly that he was quite all right and Mr Hastings should think nothing of it. What amazed me was the term Mr Hastings used to describe the man's good sportsmanship: he called him a white man. There was no question of him meaning it in a purely factual sense. So far as I could tell everybody in the story was white. He clearly meant it in the way that Bulldog Drummond uses it. Then, just to rub in that this was not merely an unfortunate slip of the pen, Hastings once more described the man in the same way in the closing paragraphs of the chapter.

Just think about that. It wasn't written in 1930 when race was the Big Idea and the Coming Thing and that the use of the phrase "white man" as a shorthand to indicate sportsmanship, honour or trustworthiness, was, unfortunately, commonplace; it was written in a book published in 1999. It wasn't written by some superannuated rustic; it was written by Max Hastings, a man who has edited Britain's best-selling quality paper, an opinion-former, a man accustomed to mix in London political and literary circles.

And now he's the Guardian's pet conservative! Go on, laugh.

UPDATE: Here Stephen Pollard lays into the same article. And here's a good letter in Friday's Guardian. "I do not recall Hastings or anyone else telling Africans that they are obliged to speak out against Mugabe's dictatorship in Zimbabwe on pain of contributing to anti-African prejudice."

The blast in the Moscow Metro that killed forty people in February seems to have inspired another bunch of murderers to follow suit.

Free trade. I think this post from The Corner is on to something:
"[Employment is understated because] the internet has created a vast underground cash economy. The dozens of eBay sellers and independent retailers I did business with last year all got paid in cash and are not about to respond to a survey about any related activity....I just bought some things for the house [on the Internet]...and they wanted PayPal. I get computer parts the same way. It used to be that the only people that could benefit from a 'cash basis' were barbers and waitresses, but that is no longer the case.

"I spent more in an underground economy last year than on anything other than housing and food. How much of what I spent do you suppose the people who sold me goods and services actually reported?"

Once I would have been shocked. Now I shrug.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004
Herd immunity. Ellie Kimmel writes regarding vaccination:
I strongly suspect that vaccination regulations are, in most US states, waived for parents who have religious objections. That's certainly the case in Florida. Although there are a few specific deomonations that forbid vaccines (Christian Science comes to mind), most parents who obtain the religious waiver do so due to fears of negative vaccination outcomes. When I was a private school teacher in Florida, we have several parents, Catholic, Protestant, atheist, and Jewish, who requested and routinely received waivers, which, as far as I know, were automatically granted to anyone who stated a religious objection.
Given modern anti-discrimination law I suspect that the power of liberal states to ensure herd immunity by making immunisation a condition of entry to schools is much reduced. If, for instance, the Nigerian rumour becomes common within Islam then we might eventually reach a stage where a requirement for immunisation will depress the number of Muslim children enrolled. That would make a school vulnerable to lawsuits in either the US or the UK. A cornerstone of modern anti-discrimination law is that things are judged by their effects, not their intentions.

Of course the same laws also make it hard for even private schools such as Ellie Kimmel's to enforce immunisation rules. Even in the absence of law I doubt whether many schools would consider it worth the trouble to argue with a request for a waiver. The whole spirit of the times is against such a move.

My scary scenario hasn't happened yet and may never happen. So far as I know non-Nigerian Muslims vaccinate their children as or more conscientiously than White Britons do; wasn't there some kerfuffle a few years ago when it was discovered that Pakistan had a higher vaccination rate for some diseases than Britain did? I seem to remember Imran Khan lent his name and face to an advertising campaign to bring Britain up to scratch.

Lord Chancelloverload? It could be worse. I could talk about John Kerry.

The only relevance of King Hillary and the Beggarman to current debates is that it has a Lord Chancellor in it.

That'll do.

Proud Lord Willoughby,
Lord High Chancellor
Laughed both loud and free:
"I've served Your Majesty, man to man,
Since first Your Majesty's reign began,
And I've often walked, but I never, never ran,
Never, never, never," quoth he.

I won't quote the whole thing having heard rumour of the long arm of the A A Milne estate. I might just casually mention that these guys run a useful website.

Mind you, for us Lord Chancellor fans the poem has all the wrong morals. A shocking example of the arbitrary and unrestrained exercise of power by fictional monarchs.

Getting tense over your upcoming British Constitution paper? Read this authoritative text.

I loved the headline of this Fisk² post from Contintelpro Tool. Personally, I doubt the Fiskoid exists in flesh and blood. Isn't the most economical explanation that we are now onto Fisk 3.0 after earlier versions crashed? (Via Insty.)

The Last Lord Chancellor. In this article William Rees-Mogg writes against the haste with which the Government, supported by Lord Falconer the present Lord Chancellor, has gone about the abolition of that office. Rees-Mogg says,
Successful institutions grow like trees; they cannot simply be erected, like the Eiffel Tower. They acquire their authority over time. Take, for instance, the post of Lord Chancellor, which the Prime Minister has decided to abolish, as a matter of convenience arising from a bungled reshuffle of his Cabinet. No one knows when the office was first created. However, it certainly goes back to the period of Anglo-Saxon government.
The Constitutional Reform Bill proposes to abolish an office which has earned more than a thousand years of public confidence.
There have been only 26 amendments to the US Constitution in two centuries, of which the first ten were in 1791. The procedures required to carry an amendment, such as the amendment on marriage that President Bush is now proposing, are that it must be proposed either by two thirds of both Houses of Congress, or by two thirds of the states, and ratified by three fourths of the states. This means that any amendment is hard to carry. It has given the US Constitution unique stability. By the American standard, Mr Blair and Lord Falconer are acting with indecent and unconstitutional haste.

Rees-Mogg may get his slowdown, for now. The Lords have voted to send the Bill to a Select Committee, which in practice will probably mean that there is no time to make it law before the next election.

You will find few better comments on all this than what Sean Gabb wrote in June 2003 giving cautious support to the change itself but expressing deep anger at the change of name. At first sight this objection might seem shallow. It is not. To explain why not, Sean Gabb briefly described the history of earlier judicial reforms and said,

... [nonetheless] the Victorian reformers did all they could to preserve the old associations. Even if the substance was entirely replaced, the names of Queen's Bench and Chancery were retained. The New Courts were built to look old. Within a generation, I doubt if anyone but a legal historian really noticed what had been done. The present set of reforms is quite different in its regard for old associations. A few years ago, writs became claim forms and plaintiffs became claimants. There are proposals to stop the Judges from wearing their horsehair wigs. Now, there is to be no Lord Chancellor. The office has existed in England for at least 800 years, and began as a sort of secretaryship to the King. It is older than Parliament. Thomas Beckett was Lord Chancellor to Henry II. Thomas More was Lord Chancellor for Henry VIII. The office was satirised in Iolanthe. It has always been around in English history, and its holders have been some of the great men of English history. Even before the proposed abolition, the cumulative effect of these reforms has been to advertise a break with the past. Let another generation go by, and only a legal historian will be able to understand the mass of obsolete words contained in law reports from before the present century. Threads of continuity will have been snapped. The past will seem more of a foreign country than is needed.

As I re-read this the stirred depths of my memory sent up a little bubble. I can't give you a reference or trace where this anecdote came from but I'm pretty sure of it and it makes me angry, despite the point at issue being purely nominal. After some previous reform of the law the authorities put out a press release boasting how they had updated and clarified obscure legal terminology, abolishing archaic terms and hence making the legal process more transparent to the citizen blah blah blah. This was reported in the press. Next day there was a letter to the editor in one of the quality dailies. (I think it was the Telegraph.) The writer said, and I had no trouble believing him, that what the authorities had actually done in their purging frenzy was replace Latin terms with...

... You think I'm going to say, "with English terms, clearly understandable to the man on the Clapham omnibus" don't you?

Nope. With numbers.

I can't remember the examples the writer cited, but in each case a Latin phrase was replaced with "a defence under Regulation 18c" or some such. In other words Latin phrases that would have been entirely comprehensible to those who did speak Latin and relatively easy to pick up and remember by those who (like me) do not were replaced by numbers that were utterly incomprehensible to lay people and even to lawyers outside that particular specialisation. In addition a little bit more of our living history was lost.

As Iain Murray put it in the comments to a Samizdata post introducing Sean Gabb's article, this is no more than the usual practice of a conqueror: to "destroy an icon of the conquered people."

UPDATE: Iain Murray comments on his own blog here.

Monday, March 08, 2004
"A sense of fairness touches deep intuitions in the human brain. So, alas, does ethnic identity..." That's how Dennis Dutton begins a paragraph in this piece on equality under the law. He's talking about New Zealand, where Maori issues are particularly in the news as a Maori political party has just been started. Dutton continues: "...and successful modern societies have gone out of their way to defuse and redirect the demons of race."

Yes. But I hardly had time to think about that before my interest was grabbed by the little anecdote of school life that he used to illustrate the general principle:

Which is why reading a story such as Megan Church's is so disturbing. Megan is a 16-year-old whose parents have removed her from Marlborough Girls' College.

Megan has worn a necklace with an amethyst since she was 10. It was forcibly cut off her neck by a teacher, as a violation of the school's dress code.

This same dress code, however, allows Maori students to wear bone and greenstone necklaces as part of the school's "Treaty of Waitangi obligations". The school administrators justify their policy because of "improved outcomes" for Maori students.

Such actions decrease respect for authority in school, increase disdain for Maori culture among non-Maori, and in the country at large corrode respect for Government.

Yes again. Although the last gets little sympathy from me, I don't like the sound of the first two at all. Once upon a time I thought expressing fear of a white backlash was simply a clever way of delaying fair treatment to non-whites. Nowadays the fear seems real and urgent. I think I can imagine the outcome of this story as far as Megan is concerned. We know her necklace was precious to her or she would have taken it off "voluntarily" rather than ending up having it forcibly cut from her. So she gets the necklace fixed. She wears it for the next ten years, maybe for the rest of her life. Every now and then she tells its story and slags off her former school - and she mentions (how could she not?) the fact that Maori girls were allowed necklaces. Maybe she will be able to avoid unfairly projecting her resentment onto Maoris generally, but she would be no worse than millions of people if she did not avoid it. And her hearers would be no worse than millions of people if they did not avoid it either.

This story is tiny, but the cumulative result of many such stories might well be the rise of a white mirror image to the newly formed Maori ethnic party.

David Carr once said to me that "when the backlash comes, don't kid yourself that it'll be us who replace the tranzis."

Mercenaries seized in Zimbabwe. This is interesting. There's sufficient detail to suggest they aren't a lost Duke of Edinburgh's Award class or anything like that.

Saturday, March 06, 2004
Polio and the tragedy of the commons. Anthony Cox writes:
Thanks for the links, I would respond if I was still blogging. But why bother when someone else has already nailed it....

I would draw your attention to this very good discussion about the tragedy of the commons in relation to vaccines at USS Clueless:

When it comes to serious diseases for which vaccines are available, if you're properly immunized you can't get the disease. But even if you aren't, you can't get the disease if you're never exposed to it. There's what is known as "herd immunity", and what it means is that if everyone around me is immunized, I am also protected even if I was not immunized. Since no one I come into contact with can have the disease, I can never be exposed to it and thus cannot get it.

The chance of a disease spreading is a function of how likely it is that an infectious person comes into contact with and infects someone else (at least for most of the diseases for which vaccination is now controversial, with the notable exception of tetanus). If most of the population is immunized, people who are infected will not have many encounters with people who could be infected, and thus the disease will have a very hard time spreading.

However, most of those vaccines carry a small risk, such that one or two children per million who are vaccinated suffer a terrible reaction which can cripple them or kill them. (There are also urban legends regarding things like an increased risk of autism, even though every attempt to look for a link has found there isn't one.) So some parents refuse to vaccinate their kids in order to avoid that perceived risk. From their point of view, there's no important chance that their kids will get those diseases whether vaccinated or not, so they're better off not being vaccinated in order to also avoid the risk inherent in the vaccines.

That makes this is a classic example of the tragedy, because if enough parents come to that conclusion, than the vaccination rate drops far enough for herd immunity to cease operating, and the diseases reappear. (Which has actually happened in some case.)

Our solution to this one is law enforcement. In most of the US, you are not permitted to enroll your children in public school unless you can prove that they've had all their vaccinations. While that hasn't resulted in a 100% vaccination rate, it has guaranteed that the rate stays high enough for herd immunity to operate.

Link to the debate in USS Clueless

Anthony Cox
Den Beste's link has some good arguments against libertarian ideas. I have a feeling that there are some good responses out there, but I don't know them. I hope this doesn't give the impression that all I'm interested in is defending my little ideological group. Perhaps a slightly more accurate statement would be that I can see the dim shapes of good responses to Den Beste but right now I cannot answer him. I don't despise my own ability to see dim shapes of arguments: usually I do manage to reach clear arguments in the end. It takes and should take quite a lot to make a person renounce their axioms. But for now, he has an awfully good point, doesn't he?

LATER: The phrase "Right to exclude" is going to be a large part of any answer I might come up with. But not tonight, I'm turning in.

"This is pompea last day sort of place." Awesome. A twenty-five year old Ukrainian biker girl has produced this unforgettable photo-essay about her distinctly unusual hobby.
"I travel a lot and one of my favorite destination lead through poisoned with radiation, so called Chernobyl "dead zone" It is 130kms from my home. Why favourite? because one can ride there for hours and not meet any single car and not to see any single soul. People left and nature is blooming, there are beautiful places, woods, lakes. "
Not to mention ghost towns across which looters, scientists and tourists of the macabre each make their own trajectories through the empty land - and through which this free spirit rides with a dosimeter at her hip and the wind in her hair.

Thanks to Damian Penny and a long chain of equally awed bloggers which I traced as far back as Jessica's Well.

Friday, March 05, 2004
It's been a while since I had a good old-fashioned anti-socialist rant. I owe a debt of gratitude to the Guardian's David Walker for this good old-fashioned socialist rant that reminded me of forgotten pleasures.

Walker has been reading a report by the Treasury's Derek Wanless (who pops up everywhere these days) that says the poor are more unhealthy than the rich. Here's Walker's solution:

But wouldn't it be even cheaper to address the causes of the income disparity that in turn correlates so strongly with ill health? It would be, but where is the physician to recommend the progressive taxation that would underpin such a health-giving redistribution of income?
Where indeed? On a Saturday night at about this hour I reckon he's just about reached the petits fours and will be calling for coffee and the bill any minute now. Good thing too, he's been moving left all night and one more drink would have had him recommending the massacre of the bourgeoisie. (The tamarind sauce was a little bitter, I thought. )

Getting back to Mr Walker, we'll start with his sloppy language. Nothing that Walker quotes from Wanless's report suggests that income disparity causes the ill-health. If you literally believed inequality caused ill-health the best policy would be to make all the rich, healthy people poor. Oh, I forgot, that is the policy.

Come to think of it, though, Walker missed a trick. Inequality does cause ill health, among baboons anyway. I read somewhere - oh, you Google - that baboons are more unhappy on a given ration of bananas when they are at the bottom of the social hierarchy than when they have the same banana allowance but are nearer being Top Baboons. That's another reason for not having socialism, say I. Ain't nothing more hierarchical than a socialist society! Without the entropic flow of money they stratify; and one of the ways they stratify is by access to health care. The elite have the skills to make sure their problems are first on the consultant's list; the lumpenproletariat do not.

But I digress. It is not inequality that should outrage but poverty. We have to get rid of poverty. So let's have more of the method of poverty-zapping that's worked for hundreds of millions of people worlwide.

Oddly, Mr Walker says quite a lot about the way poor people smoke more than rich people without explaining why giving the poor more of other people's money to buy ciggies would help. Free fruit and veg? I don't see it working, mate. Carrots, for instance are damn near free already. In the developed countries most of the health problems of the permanently poor class are behavioural.

(Most, but not all. For some reason the Guardian column doesn't mention some non-behavioural health-influencing factors that would make their case a lot more effectively, such as damp, cold and pollution. Perhaps the actual death and sickness rates from these causes are lower than I thought.)

But there's avoidable ill-health behind every chip buttie. Orwell once ran through a poor man's weeky income (he knew from his own experience what that was) to test the claim that the poor couldn't buy books. He concluded they could buy them if they wanted to but they didn't. They had other pleasures. If that was true for books then, how much more true it is for vegetables now.

When we were poor the thing that bugged me most was anxiety. We could get by so long as nothing went wrong. (The car stalls and your lips move in silent prayer. A paycheque is a day late and your chest starts to hurt.) Healthy food simply wasn't an issue. In fact someone praised us for the way we always seemed to have good, plain wholesome English food on the hob. So we did. If you buy Scrag End of Animal and cook it for hours you can eat as peasants did for centuries. It seemed like that stew lasted for centuries, actually. Every fibre of my soul yearned for a Waitrose Ready Meal but I didn't starve.

The middle class poor do make some decisions that are as bad in their own way as the decisions of the working class and sub-working class poor. Since I've cited Orwell once against the working class I'll do so again against the middle class-but-slipping: he also said somewhere that thousands of people yearly cast themselves into real destitution by their efforts to keep up the pretence that they are not poor. This is spot-on. Think what agonies people will go through to keep 'the house'. When you also add in the effects of modern vices unknown to Orwell such as thinking one has to have a computer, the end result shouldn't leave the snobby salad-eaters looking so smug. But it does leave them looking healthy.

A hypothesis Walker doesn't suggest but I do is that welfare makes you unhealthy. Welfare people spend a lot of time sitting around doing nothing, and that is bad for your health. (The fun thing about that last sentence is it presses all the outrage buttons while remaining perfectly defensible.) Inactivity, low morale and passivity are the hallmarks of welfare and are also the hallmarks of ill health. Getting folk off welfare would save lives.

I had a sort of preparatory proto-rant to this one over in the comments to this post at Freedom and Whisky. Some BBC report said that poorer people couldn't afford healthy food and couldn't afford exercise. Can't the BBC conceive of exercise outside a gym?

ADDED LATER: A thing I didn't bring out in this rant was that when I talk about health problems being behavioural problems nine times out of ten I think that harmful behaviours are made a lot more likely by bad incentives in society. In that respect I haven't changed much since my pinko days - although my views as to what constitutes a bad state of society have changed.

Yeah. I'm still a wimp.

Sulli has up two funny stories about politically correct editing. Here's my contribution to the genre, which I actually heard in a sermon: worried that he might hesitate or stumble over the deceased's name while reading the words of a funeral service, a Catholic priest got into the habit of using the the "Replace All" function of his word processor to print out the text with the correct name inserted every time. All went well until he had to conduct the funeral of a lady called Mary, closely followed by another funeral for a man called Joe. "Hail Joe, full of grace..."

Thursday, March 04, 2004
More on polio vaccination in Nigeria. I'm putting this follow up to my Biased BBC post here rather than there because it's more about the story itself rather than the BBC presentation of it. There's plenty to say.

Anthony Cox of the late lamented Black Triangle blog writes:

You are making me all nostalgic about my blog, I've been covering this for
some time...

Anti-vaccine and anti-American nexus

Anti-American and anti-vaccine nexus re-confirmed

The Nigerian Vaccine Scandal

Mission Impossible

And here's a link plus discussion from Gene Expressions: link

One of the commenters ("bbartlog") to the Gene Expressions post brings up some reasonable arguments against vaccination. I concede that when liberty meets public health, sparks fly. Here are some of the issues:

  • The "prisoner's dilemma" mentioned by bbartlog: it might lower the risk of harm to the general population if your child were vaccinated but raise the risk for your child, if he were particularly susceptible to an adverse reaction, for instance.
  • What does a libertarian do with Typhoid Mary? Don't think we haven't thought about it. Options discussed have included all possible combinations of the right of communities to exclude, insurance, quarantine plus compensation, and a well-placed bullet through the head.
  • The idea that the [Jews/ Catholics/ CIA / KGB / alien lizards] are contaminating something or other to make our women infertile is a staple of loony conspiracy theorists. That should not blind us to the fact that accidental contamination of vaccines does occur. One of the commenters to the final Black Triangle post mentions a case.
  • Nor is it inconceivable that the the authorities might take measures that infringe human rights under the guise of public health, and might lie about doing it. (Though I cannot resist a digression to say that the belief that back in World War II the British Army secretly put bromide in the soldiers' tea to reduce their sex drive is a myth according to this Q&A from New Scientist and this urban folklore page. The latter says the Army did use bromide but only to purify water. Snopes mentions and denies a parallel US myth about saltpetre. )
  • The health lobby are very arrogant. Their belief that health trumps self-ownership is a danger to freedom, the more so because it is sincere and well meaning. This is actually one of the major issues of our time.

OK, so I've raised all these questions and shown what a reasonable person I am. I've told the BMA to get their noses out of my life on this blog before now and no doubt I will again. Now let's get back to the immediate case before us.

None of these points, thought-provoking though they are, seriously challenge the point I made on Biased BBC. The myth that "the Americans are lacing polio vaccine to make Nigerian women infertile" is baseless. While it lasts, it kills. If the BBC talk about "public service" means anything at all, it means educating people not to believe such rubbish.

UPDATE: Gadaffi believes similar conspiracy theories. This account comes via Noah of Africapundit.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004
If you are at peace with the world, read Laban Tall and the reinvigorated Peter Briffa and they'll soon set you right.

On Biased BBC I have up an angry post about BBC reporting of the conspiracy theory that is stopping many Nigerians from being vaccinated against polio.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004
Simple evil.

Cass Brown saw my piece on sick jokes, and now writes:

Dear Natalie

I am terminally ill, happy and have produced a web site which is an idiot's guide to accepting, living with, laughing at and even dying from cancer or other serious illness. The very, very last bit I can't be absolutely sure of but then who can? I could have put together some beautifully crafted, grammatically correct essays but I hope you will understand, that when I say "I don't have a lot of time" I mean it far more literally than you do. I wanted to publish some thoughts which may just light a spark in some people and help them or their families to deal with their situation. I am receiving overwhelming support from the general public MPs, doctors nurses etc. This may be of interest to you or maybe to other employees as this can touch anyone and does touch most families at some stage.

I am not selling anything and I am not supporting a cause, religion or other group. As you will see from the site, it seems that some people's lives have been changed for the better merely by looking at this different approach.

No handkerchief needed.

Kind Regards

Cass Brown

The website is here. Now, as it happens, Blog City is being upgraded so I haven't actually seen it. But the email struck me as straightforward and up-front so I'm taking it on trust. That sort of humour that I expect to see there isn't going to appeal to everybody, but there is a big difference between grim humour about your own position and mockery of someone else's, as members of the Guinea Pig Club could tell you.

UPDATE: I'm afraid I still haven't been able to get the first link ( to work. I can't figure out what I'm doing wrong

Important Environmental News. Bjorn Lomborg looks like Harrison Ford.

Bet that explains some of his success - and some of the fury against him.

Monday, March 01, 2004
Sorry, too busy to blog today. I'll just mention that while desperately trying to hack down a few of the hydra-heads of email I found one offering me effort-free academic qualifications which came from a netscape email address starting with the characters "nataliesolent" and which had in the text the phrase "real name: natalie solent."

Gosh, what an amazing coincidence, I don't think. I am definitely not offering fake MBAs for money, and so far as I know there is no other Natalie Solent on the net. May all spammers die a lingering death in the depths of space.