An official apology to Alan Turing

An official apology to Alan Turing. Win.

Why is there peace?

Why is There Peace? — violence is declining, over history, at least in relative terms, though not, one suspects, absolute ones.

“Believe Me, It’s Torture”

Christopher Hitchens gets waterboarded [via Dawkins].

The evolution of the eye

Anti-evolutionists sometimes use the human eye as an argument for a creator; here’s David Attenborough explaining why that’s tosh [via frosty].

Fake People Tell Fake Stories About The Threat Of Gay Marriage

Fake People Tell Fake Stories About The Threat Of Gay Marriage [brunns].

Sign here, please

If you think it shouldn’t be illegal to photograph police officers, please sign here. If you don’t think so, please watch this and then tell me why not. Thanks!

“The Doctor Will Sue You Now”

If you’re ever looking for a warning sign that you’re on the wrong side of an argument, suing Medecins Sans Frontieres is probably a pretty good clue.

Video of Ian Tomlinson assualted from behind without provocation by a police officer

The Guardian have published video footage of Ian Tomlinson, a bystander caught up in last week’s G20 protests in London, being struck from behind in the leg with a baton and pushed to the ground by a police officer as he walked away peacably with his hands in his pockets. He died of a heart attack a little while later.

It becomes clearer that the purpose of riot police is not only to protect the public at large by controlling riots, but also to protect the status quo by discouraging dissent and protest — if you know that even protesting peacefully (or being in the area of a protest but not participating, as in Tomlinson’s case) you are at risk of unprovoked attack by armed, armoured and aggressive large males, you will tend to be discouraged from doing so. I know I am. :-/

Jared Diamond on Collapse

One of the best books I’ve read in the last few years was Collapse by Jared Diamond. It’s meaty, well researched, well argued, systematic, fascinating, and fairly terrifying (though with the possibility of hope, at least).

In this 20 minute video, Diamond pretty much summarises the whole book. If you think it’s something you might want to read, watch the vid, because everything he talks about is explored in much more depth in the book — and all the book’s major themes are touched upon.

If still unsure, check out Diamond’s Long Now seminar (audio here), which is where I first came across him.

Here we stand, at the cusp

Fantastic Bruce Sterling: 2009 will be a year of panic, but the good news is the true 21st century begins here.

It’s just another (possibly even manic?) Monday

Lovely write-up by Ben Goldacre on why the whole Blue Monday most-depressing-day-of-the-year stuff is utter bullshit. In essence:

  1. It apparently originates with a travel firm’s PR company feeding a formula to a not-very-distinguished scientist, who publishes it.
  2. If you dig into the scientific literature and actually look for evidence of any seasonal variation in, say, suicide or depression, you find nothing conclusive whatsoever — lots of contradictory reports, many of which point to the spring or summer as being worse, in fact.

Classic stuff. Welcome to the Delusional Race.

Social Security vs Ponzi Schemes

Good Math, Bad Math has a nice post today drawing a distinction between Social Security and Ponzi Schemes; some interesting discussion in the comments, too – always good to see Life of Brian brought into the fray. :-)

Gay (and poly) marriage: the database engineering perspective

Awesome database/sexual equality tutorial — required reading! [mrdaveb]

The cotton belt, and the Cornish highlands

Two map-related items of interest:

From Pickin’ Cotton to Pickin’ Presidents correlates deep-south counties voting for Obama with cotton production in 1860, in a very striking manner. I found the following rather notable:

As it turns out, president-elect Obama won with the an overall support of 53%, but that includes over 90% of black voters.

Of white voters, only 43% voted for Obama; since Lyndon B. Johnson, no Democratic candidate for the highest office has ever garnered more than half the votes of European-Americans.

Then, comment #96 provides the geological context, expanded upon here, and in particular pointing at this fascinating map of “shorelines in the Cretaceous period”.

You can just see Britain on the right of that map, and ooh look, it’s all underwater apart from part of Scotland, most of Ireland, and south-west England including all of Devon and Cornwall. The most prominent topographical features of Devon and Cornwall these days are Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor, worn down “ancient mountains” as my geography teacher put it to me one day; it looks like, in the cretaceous, they weren’t quite so worn down…

For example, see Maria Full Of Grace (Marston, 2004)

As I’ve been saying for a few years now, there’s no such thing as Fair-Trade cocaine; this may, of course, be freely construed as an argument for legalisation or for greater sanctions, according to your prevailing political worldview.

Bringing the house down

An extremely readable piece in yesterday’s Guardian magazine on the UK property market: how it got like it is, why it’s so different to its friends overseas, and what’s (in his opinion) likely to happen. I found the background more interesting than the predictioneering, of course. Tasters:

Say you bought your house in 1970, and paid the then-national average price for it: £4,378. At the peak of the current spike in prices, that same average house would have been worth £184,431. Congratulations! You’ve multiplied your money almost 43 times. You’re rich, do you hear me?

Rich! Except you aren’t, really. Strip out the effect of inflation, and that spectacular sounding 4,300% price rise works out as 2.4% a year in real terms. This is close, in other words, to the historic long-term average for investments regarded as being more or less without any risk at all. That’s where the expression “safe as houses” comes from.

British householders are allergic to fixed interest rates; we prefer variable loans. No one quite knows why, since fixed interest rates often make good sense, and have the effect of transferring some of the risk of the loan to the banks. If you have a variable rate mortgage, and the central bank interest rate goes up, you feel it in your pocket; if you have a fixed rate and the same thing happens, the bank feels it. In the US, the two institutions designed to help the banking system to bear the risk of this fixed-rate lending are called Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That’s the same Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that on September 7 were taken over by the US government in the biggest nationalisation in the history of the world; and the reason they went under was precisely because they were swamped by the cost of these risks.

Towards the end of 2006, the average investment yield on a buy-to-let property no longer covered the mortgage that had been taken out to buy it. In other words, the average buy-to-let investor was losing money on a monthly basis. The reason for hanging on in there was the hope for capital growth. But house prices in the UK are now in decline. The Nationwide survey for the year to October showed a decline of 14.6%; add the CPI inflation rate of 5.2%, and prices have fallen almost 20% already. So for those buy-to-letters already losing money on the interest payments, capital growth now looks some way off. Depending on what was paid for the property, it may be many years off. If all buy-to-let investors realise this and stampede for the exit at the same time, the UK property market will go off the edge of a cliff.

What motivates terrorists?

Schneier on terrorist motivation, positing that it’s less about achieving political ends, and more about being part of a social structure [brunns]. Sounds quite reasonable. I was struck a bit by this sentence:

We also need to pay more attention to the socially marginalized than to the politically downtrodden, like unassimilated communities in Western countries.

Now, I won’t argue with that, except: aren’t they often the same people?

So, some voting happened

Sums up some of the main issues with voting machines quite nicely, I think [pwb].

In other news, I hear the American electorate did something right yesterday (or to put it another way…); unfortunately, at time of writing it remains unclear whether Californian voters have dropped the ball and approved Proposition 8. Sadly, it looks like they have, and Stephen Fry claims they have, but I suspect he’s responding to polls not actual results, as the latter don’t seem to have be announced yet. OTOH maybe there’s something about being a British National Treasure in the middle of nowhere in Madagascar that gives you prophetic powers. It’s looking like an increasingly near thing, so there’s hope yet.

Now, why does this not surprise me?

“People who wear suits to work in Manhattan are the biggest god-damned dicks you’ll find anywhere.”

Good Math, Bad Math

(Answer: because it plays into my prejudices. :-) )

Gimbo gets to vote twice ‘cos he’s fab.

Local elections take place in much of England and all of Wales today, so it’s time to vote.

Interestingly, I’ve just realised that I’ve been given two votes this time round, which shouldn’t really happen. In other words, I occur on the electoral register twice. Naturally I won’t exploit this, but I wonder how they’ll react when I show up at the polling station and point this out to them. Will it be a big thing, or just run of the mill? I’d prefer the former; I suspect the latter.

How’s this possible? 2-3 years ago I lived at address X in Mumbles; last year I moved to address Y, also in Mumbles (I was at address Z in between, but that doesn’t feature in our story). I’ve now received, through the post, two polling cards: one for “Andy Martin Gimblett” at address X, and one for “Andrew Gimbleh” at address Y. When I moved in to address Y, I will have filled a form at some point stating that I live here, and somebody in City Hall has obviously bungled the transcription, reading TT as H somehow. Meanwhile, address X presumably lies empty (the landlords were, not to put too fine a point on it, twats) so nobody’s filled in a form telling the world I no longer live there.

The best bit is that, despite X and Y being within 500m or so of each other, they have different polling stations, so I really could vote twice. Even if they ask for ID, I’m sure I could argue convincingly that “Andrew Gimbleh”‘s vote belongs to me, particularly to people who haven’t just seen me vote using a different card. :-)

Thoughtful students of protocol will now be asking the question: Why have I received the card addressed to X? Because I used to have a forward in place, and the postman has apparently learnt my new address. There’s no official forwarding sticker on the card (or on any of my forwarded mail, even the stuff to address Z, where the forward is still in place) – the postie is just being helpful. That’s great, but in this instance is probably not the right thing to do. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that polling cards are, legally, not supposed to be forwarded — that would go some way to preventing this bug, I guess; however, there’s nothing on the card indicating this.

Security: it’s hard.

The subprime primer

The joy of hindsight: the sub-prime catastrophe in a few nutshells [smallcool].

Not actually funny

Not actually funny.

One way not to conduct Internet voting

USA Democratic Party “global primary” for Democrats Abroad badly run, insecure, untrustworthy — just like almost all (all?) electronic voting systems in use today.

There are well-known risks at every stage of the episode, so I repeat: that whole process was neither secure nor well-run; moreover, its collection of personal information using unsecured Web pages exposed participants to the risk of information theft, and delivering notionally secure information by email is painfully bad judgment. The episode proves nothing except that well-intentioned people continue to make elementary but serious errors in designing and setting up processes that must be safe at every step if they are to be meaningful.

Don’t like getting to sleep at night? Read the RISKS digest avidly.

Armed police arrest man over MP3 player

Armed police arrested a man listening to his MP3 player and took a sample of his DNA after a fellow commuter mistook the music player for a gun. [smallcool]

Darren Nixon had been waiting at a bus stop in Stoke-on-Trent on his way home from work when a woman saw him reach into his pocket and take out a black Phillips MP3 player. The woman thought it was a pistol and called 999.

Police tracked 28-year-old Nixon using CCTV, sending three cars to follow him. When he got off the bus, armed officers surrounded him. He was driven to a police station, kept in a cell and had his fingerprints, photograph and DNA taken.

The Liberal Democrats, who are campaigning to have the DNA records of innocent people destroyed, said the national DNA database now held more than 3m records kept for life, an estimated 125,000 of which belong to people who were neither cautioned or charged.


LMAO @ the Guiliani visualisation on Defective Yeti’s analysis of the current state of the US presidential contest. I must say, I’m glad to see him out.

Irrefutable proof

The moon landings really are fake!!!11 [smallcool]

“True Christians should only read English” and other gems

Kinda like a fundy 100 greatest quotes from fundamentalist Christian chat rooms — well worth a look if you want to experience the feeling of not knowing whether to laugh or cry [pixi].

Gravity: Doesn’t exist. If items of mass had any impact of others, then mountains should have people orbiting them.

You are banned. You are not a Christian for Christians don’t accuse brothers and sisters in Christ of being non-Christian.

Make sure your answer uses Scripture, not logic.

Deoxyribonucleic Acid, for example… sounds impressive, right? But have you ever seen what happens if you put something in acid? It dissolves! If we had all this acid in our cells, we’d all dissolve! So much for the Theory of Evolution, Check MATE!

Caveat: this post mocks idiots, not Christians; in no sense do I assert that either set is a subset of the other.

Colossus reborn

Colossus reborn.

Don’t kiss in public in India?

Wtf? Warrant issued for Richard Gere’s arrest in India following public kissing. Kissing on the cheek, mind you. An “obscene act”, apparently – it’s official!

Public displays of affection are still largely taboo in India, and protestors in Mumbai (Bombay) set fire to effigies of Gere following the incident.

Wtf? They burnt effigies of him? For a bit I wondered if the anger was directed solely at him. Apparently not.

… while protesters in other cities shouted “death to Shilpa Shetty”.

Here we have actual human beings, calling for the deaths of other actual human beings, because they kissed in public? Ye gods and little children, will the insanity of men never cease?

Boy falsely jailed for bomb threat for 12 days due to DST changeover

Boy falsely jailed for bomb threat for 12 days due to DST changeover. (URL in RISKS story doesn’t seem to work? Lots of google hits though, many of which have the same content and no attribution, sadly.)

Webb gave an insight into the school’s impressive investigative techniques, saying that he was ushered in to see the principal, Kathy Charlton. She asked him what his phone number was, and, according to Webb, when he replied ‘she started waving her hands in the air and saying “we got him, we got him.”’

‘They just started flipping out, saying I made a bomb threat to the school,’ he told local television station KDKA. After he protested his innocence, Webb says that the principal said: ‘Well, why should we believe you? You’re a criminal. Criminals lie all the time.’

Dorks. Dorks in positions of authority, more to the point.

On banning unnatural practices

Amusing; satirical; makes a good point. [pixi]

Muhammad Yunus – Nobel Lecture: Poverty is a Threat to Peace

Awe inspiring.

Ninety four percent of the world income goes to 40 percent of the population while sixty percent of people live on only 6 per cent of world income. Half of the world population lives on two dollars a day. Over one billion people live on less than a dollar a day. This is no formula for peace.

Poverty is the absence of all human rights. The frustrations, hostility and anger generated by abject poverty cannot sustain peace in any society. For building stable peace we must find ways to provide opportunities for people to live decent lives.

Today, Grameen Bank gives loans to nearly 7.0 million poor people, 97 per cent of whom are women, in 73,000 villages in Bangladesh. Grameen Bank gives collateral-free income generating, housing, student and micro-enterprise loans to the poor families and offers a host of attractive savings, pension funds and insurance products for its members. Since it introduced them in 1984, housing loans have been used to construct 640,000 houses. The legal ownership of these houses belongs to the women themselves. We focused on women because we found giving loans to women always brought more benefits to the family.

In a cumulative way the bank has given out loans totaling about US $6.0 billion. The repayment rate is 99%. Grameen Bank routinely makes profit. Financially, it is self-reliant and has not taken donor money since 1995. Deposits and own resources of Grameen Bank today amount to 143 per cent of all outstanding loans. According to Grameen Bank’s internal survey, 58 per cent of our borrowers have crossed the poverty line.

Iraq is like a fist in a beehive

There – I’ve said it. Wonderful and well-expressed analogy for the Iraq situation courtesy of Simon.

Happy-slapping and protester-tasering: ban it all!

There’s a story in today’s Guardian about banning happy-slapping videos on sites such as Youtube. The journalist understates the difficulty and complexity of this issue beautifully:

The issue is likely to be raised when MPs debate the violent crime reduction bill next week, but it is unlikely an amendment on such a complex area of broadcasting freedom could be put together in an acceptable form over the weekend.

Unlikely? Over the weekend? D’ya think?

It reminds me of the debate over the hate-speech bill, one of the counter-arguments to which was that the law, as framed, would also in fact exclude much comedy. Gladly this doesn’t seem to have transpired, but still, the powers are there and could be used.

In particular, if you ban YouTube from hosting disturbing videos of indiscriminate and unwarranted violence, that law could well ban videos such as these, of protesters being tasered. Some of these are truly disturbing, and not the kind of thing you’re going to see on BBC News any time soon – but their availability is progress in the battle towards an open society.

Robert Fisk was on Desert Island Discs yesterday. Say what you like about him, he spoke well, and clearly sees the job of the journalist as telling the truth – whatever it is, however unsavoury. Youtube and its ilk are an opportunity for anyone to engage in telling the truth as they see it, and in documenting world events. News is a highly politicised monetised commodity (hello Mr Murdoch), and any movement towards decentralising news gathering/distribution to the public at large is progress. Something else Fisk said, IIRC, was that if the public saw the reality of war as he had seen it, “the dogs eating the corpses of children” as he put it, they would never, ever, support any war. A law which bans violent videos from the internet runs counter to that trend.

The only mitigator would be a “public interest” clause, I suppose. So if you seeing a violent video law being framed without such a clause, protest. Even so, I’d argue it’s problematic…

Eyewitness account of atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, 1945.08.06

61 years ago today, atomic weaponry was used in anger for the first time, against the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Here is a first-person eyewitness account of that event and the days that followed. It is worth reading.

Kissing Hank’s Ass

Kissing Hank’s Ass – spot on.

Fake IDs save lives in Iraq

Fake IDs save lives in Iraq [schneier].

… Iraqis are using fake IDs in light of the recent growth in sectarian killings. The major groups in Iraq are not distinguishable by physical traits, but they are by name. To avoid being killed, people are getting false identification cards: Surnames refer to tribe and clan, while first names are often chosen to honor historical figures revered by one sect but sometimes despised by the other. For about $35, someone with a common Sunni name like Omar could become Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite name that might provide safe passage through dangerous areas.

Of course, I’m not suggesting this is an argument against having ID cards here in the UK, at least unless Welsh-English tensions get seriously worse. I did once pretend to be Welsh in the face of some extreme hostility, mind – but the drunk Welsh rugby wanker in question didn’t demand my ID card at gunpoint, so…

The Politics of Paranoia and Intimidation

Great stuff. Bayes’ Theory applied to explain why one key “common sense” facet of the USA’s “war on terror” is a waste of time and money, at least for its stated purpose. [schneier]

If the following paragraph doesn’t cause you to nod knowingly, you really should read the whole article. (BTW, I’ve changed the figures to percentages, for enhanced legibility by non mathematicians).

Suppose that NSA’s system is really, really, really good, really, really good, with an accuracy rate of 90%, and a misidentification rate of .001%, which means that only 3,000 innocent people are misidentified as terrorists. With these suppositions, then the probability that people are terrorists given that NSA’s system of surveillance identifies them as terrorists is only 23%, which is far from 100% and well below flipping a coin. NSA’s domestic monitoring of everyone’s email and phone calls is useless for finding terrorists.

This kind of result is often very suprising and non-intuitive, and hence important. When reality diverges from “common sense”, we need to understand why, so we can explain it to people who like to trust “common sense” in their decision making processes (eg Daily Mail readers ;-) ). This kind of result crops up all over the place… I first came across it in the context of medical diagnosis, where it basically explains why misdiagnosis happens so often. Quite simply, the numbers are just stacked against us. There’s nothing we can do about it – we just have to understand what’s happening and get on with it.

Not quite defending Lowri Turner, but…

Further to this post, Sean kindly pointed out a BBC story on the topic. Actually, the story did make me feel a little uneasy – to be honest, I don’t think it’s unacceptable to publish these views, and actually yes, the editor had every right to let it go to press. (Though his assertion that “there was no intention to offend” is fairly laughable – at best naive, and at worst, cynical.)

The point, however, is that we must then respond by all pointing our fingers in derision and horror at Lowri and the Western Mail, and tearing those freely-expressed opinions to pieces.

Defence really is much more expensive than education

USA spending 100,000 dollars every minute on Iraq – enough to pay for a 4-year college degree every 30 seconds.

Lowri Turner: “the electorate hates fags, and rightly so”

TV presenter Lowri Turner made some “interesting” remarks lately, asserting in a Western Mail column that sexual orientation has an actual effect on ability and thus, in her mind, right, to participate in government – and that in particular, gay men should not govern. She also tells us bisexuality doesn’t exist, and other little nuggets of wisdom. Lots of people blogging on this, btw. eg, this one‘s quite good/coherent.

Wow. I can of course tolerate people who are small-minded, closed-minded, bigoted and generally unpleasant to their fellow humans, so long as they’re not in government, anyway. Turner is, however (worse!) all over the shop with her logic.

To summarise, we have her telling us that sexual orientation is fixed, that bisexuals are fooling themselves (oh, that old chestnut!), and that if you’re gay you shouldn’t be running the country because, um, you’re not capable. For some reason.

She defends this last point in time-honoured fashion:

Before I am accused of prejudice, I should say that not only are some of my best friends gay, but probably most of them are. I work in the media, for goodness sake. It is precisely because I know such a lot of gay men that I can say that I don’t think many of them are capable of representing the interests of the vast majority of people. Their lifestyles are too divorced from the norm. They are not better or worse, but they are different.

Does she really believe she can speak authoritatively of all gay men just because she works in the media? Furthermore, I’d assert, with tongue only slightly in cheek, that the reason their lifestyles are “divorced from the norm” isn’t that they’re gay – it’s that they work in the media. (Just kidding Bash.)

Anyway, she then contradicts her assertion that “they are not better or worse, but they are different”, by explaining how “they” are, in fact, worse:

“Gay men face challenges of their own, but they do not face those associated with having children which is the way most of us live. … My gay friends have not sat in accident and emergency with a small child. They have not had to make the decision over whether to give them MMR. They have not struggled to get their child statemented or gone through the schools’ appeals process.”

No Lowri, gay men (and women) never have children in their life. You’re absolutely right. They never do. They never adopt, for example. And when they do they make an even bigger mess of it than straights, even straights with jobs in the media. By the way, I’m being sarcastic at this point.

There’s more of the same, and she does seem obsessed with the parental experience. Saying that gay men don’t have the experience of sitting in casualty with a small child is crazy – gross and patently untrue overgeneralisation. I will grant that you’d probably find it happens less than with straight parents (purely on numbers, I mean), but that doesn’t validate the point. Further, if your next statement is “thus all gay men know nothing of children”, and the one after that is “thus, this particular gay man should not govern”, you clearly haven’t grasped the idea of rational thinking yet. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what she does. It’s also a deeply flawed argument in that it would apply equally well (if it worked) to straight people who happen to be childless.

Anyway, has she never heard of the Conservative Party? ;-)

Keeping it Welsh (The Western Mail is published from Cardiff), I wonder what Adam Price MP (Plaid Cymru, Carmarthen East & Dinefwr), gay and in parliament, thinks about all this, by the way…

Next step in the oil wars

The USA must forcibly annex Khuzestan in the next couple of months to prevent the catastrophic collapse of the dollar?

Totalitarianism in a nutshell

Totalitarianism in a nutshell [smallcool].

Baby Bush Toys

Baby Bush Toys – Barbara sent me this link before Christmas but I’ve shamefully only just followed it. Oh, so busy! Anyway, good stuff. I particularly like the Circle of Liberty Puzzle.

The Cyprus Crisis

I can’t remember how I came across it, but I’ve had a copy of The Cyprus Crisis: A Multilateral Bargaining Simulation (pdf, 100KB) sitting on my shelf waiting to be read, for about six months now. This morning I finally got round to it, and a good time was had by all.

The paper describes a technique used in Florida State University’s Political Science department, where students simulated a few days of the international situation surrounding Cyprus. (Note that the simulation takes place “in the real world” – this is not about computerised simulation.) Individual students took on roles of various political actors (eg members of the UN Security Council), and over a few days various negotiations took place, against a backdrop of unfolding events beyonds the students’ control.

It’s quite short, and well worth a read, even if this isn’t your field (it certainly isn’t mine). There’s not a huge depth of detail, and while the main concern of the article is whether the simulation worked as a teaching technique (it seemed to), there’s little in the way of heavy analysis – largely it’s just a description of what they did and why.