The bear necessities of life

The adult male grizzly bear weights up to 800lb, is called Ursus horriblis, can run at 30mph and is known to attack humans. You would think that any sensible person would stay as far from these animals as possible. Apparently, Richard White from San Diego was not one of those sensible people:

"He knew about camping," White's father said. "He knew about survival techniques. He knew about all this from the time he was 10 years old."
I would have thought "survival techniques" cover "not going anywhere near adult grizzlies without a high-power rifle", but apparently not.

As Pavlov's Cat acerbically notes:

...I do wonder what bear awareness training consists of, I would of thought holding up a picture of a bear and saying "This is a fucking bear, it will fucking kill you if you get too close or you piss it off" would cover it.
It continues to astound me that people treat bears so casually - witness tourists in Yellowstone photographing a grizzly as it wanders by a few feet from them, and then what has to be my all-time favourite:

I mean, what the heck? Photographing a grizzly mother with cubs from 15 feet away? There are times one wonders whether the baboons would have made a more intelligent society than the one we have today.


Oh Boris, don't ever change

Q+A with Boris Johnson:

Q: Why don't you give Ken a chance?
BJ: I gave him two excellent chances.

Streaming video and the insanity of copyright law

No matter what your position on the Internet, cable/satellite broadcasters and TV content makers, you should definitely read Ars Technica on why the current streaming TV legal situation is insane and how it got that way:

...the Supreme Court had meddled with the primal forces of nature, and Congress promptly swung into action, revising the law to override Fortnightly and Teleprompter. The 1976 Copyright Act added a "transmit clause" to its definitions to make clear that whether a work was performed "by means of any device or process" and whether the public received it "in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times," it would still infringe if transmitted without permission.
It turns out that letting professional politicians pull laws from their rear fundaments is a bad idea. Who knew?

The centre of this article is the concept of placing the functions of a DVR (digital video recorder, e.g. your Sky+ box) in "The Cloud"; instead of transmitting all TV stations in a multiplexed signal down a cable or satellite channel and letting the subscriber's DVR pick out a channel for recording, do the whole operation in the provider's data center and let the user just download the content they'd stored when they needed it. No longer was the size of your DVR's hard disk an issue - you could use as much disk as your provider let you have, and no doubt pay per GB. But the TV networks didn't like that idea, much as they had disliked the original concept of home video recording, and sued; the Second Circuit court knocked back the claim on these points:

First, each time a user recorded a program, the RS-DVR made a separate copy of it for her, storing it on her own dedicated hard drive space. Second, each time she played back a program, it came from her own stored copy.
If I had been an enterprising lawyer for the networks, I would have been asking hard questions about the presence of any data de-duplication in the providers' servers; does each subscriber's recording of "Jersey Shore ep. 570" occupy an identifiable and distinct GB of hard disc space, or is there a single copy that they point to? Still, that defeat wasn't enough for the networks, and they're constantly looking to take the wind out of broadcasters' sails, on and off the Internet.

It then turns out that the murky mesh of regulations has required Internet TV startups to do things that any reputable engineer would have termed "insane". Case in point: Aereo who let you buffer live TV:

Aereo filled its Brooklyn data center with dime-sized antennas — 80 on each circuit board, with 16 boards to a rack. When a user is logged in, Aereo designates one of the antennas as "hers" and starts recording the chosen channel to a unique copy on a hard drive, Cablevision-style. Then, just like with Cablevision's RS-DVR, she can stream the stored video over the Internet.
In other words, the end result isn't important - it's how Aereo is seen to be operating as a broadcaster. And it turns out that the aforementioned deduplication issue could be worked around as well:
But a federal judge thought that this deduplication wasn't a problem, explaining, "The record demonstrates that MP3tunes does not use a 'master copy' to store or play back songs stored in its lockers. Instead, MP3tunes uses a standard data compression algorithm that eliminates redundant digital data." So either the judge didn't think that individual copies were necessary, or he misunderstood what a "master copy" was.
I'm with Ars Technica on this - if I were a business relying on this point of judgement for my business, I wouldn't sleep terribly well at night. Some legal clarification would be very welcomed.

All this goes to show that it's a miracle that any substantial improvements in TV watching technology get delivered to us end consumers. If the networks have their way (and no doubt they are busy contributing to re-election campaigns as we speak) most of these will be rolled back. As P. J. O'Rourke notes:

When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.


Rachel Corrie verdict - no additional data

So the verdict from the Israeli court is back: it was an accident. This is, in a sense, not news. Nearly everyone was expecting such a verdict; those who think it was an accident expected the verdict to agree with them, those who think Israel deliberately ran over Corrie never expected an Israeli court to admit it. So, frankly, what's the news?

David Bernstein's take on the case and reporting is well worth a read:

I've come up with a pretty clear dividing line for sound coverage and poor coverage. Sound coverage at the very least mentions that Corrie was working for the International Solidarity Movement. Even if the story doesn’t give any further details, a bit of Googling would quickly reveal that the ISM is a far-leftist organization that supports Palestinian terrorism, has served as cover for terrorists, and encourages its participants to insert themselves as dangerous situations where they may suffer "martyrdom."
It's a fair point. A Google image search for "rachel corrie flag burning" reveals several photos which indicate that Ms. Corrie was not totally separate from radical causes. If you want to argue that the bystanders reporting Israeli reckless negligence were neutral and trustworthy, this has to put a sheen of doubt on that argument.

The Grauniad editorial writers are in no doubt where the blame lies:

Rachel Corrie, Tom Hurndall, Brian Avery, Caoimhe Butterly – all killed or severely injured while bearing witness to what happens to civilians in Israel's combat zones – leave a stain no court can erase.
It falls to me to note those words: "combat zones". If civilians go into combat zones, for reasons worthy or otherwise, they are taking their lives into their own hands. There is very limited scope for blame when one of them gets killed. Even soldiers are routinely killed by their own colleagues and equipment during peacetime. Why should civilians expect themselves to be any safer? If you wouldn't stand in front of a bulldozer on a building site in Slough, why think that it would be any safer in Gaza in a "closed military zone"?


Policy - a substitute for thinking

"What's your name?" "Hunter Spanjer". OK.
"What's your name?" Deaf child signs "Hunter Spanjer". "You're violating our weapons policy!"

Seems that Grand Island Public Schools (Nebraska) may want to rethink their policies.

"We are working with the parents to come to the best solution we can for the child," said Jack Sheard, Grand Island Public Schools spokesperson.
How about you fire everyone in GIPS who had the power to let this go, but declined to do so? What possible purpose does this case serve, other than to perpetuate the image of the American public school system as captured by procedure and in thrall to policy instead of serving parents and pupils?

Full text of policy 8470 here:

Students are forbidden to knowingly and voluntarily possess, handle, transmit or use any instrument in school, on school grounds or at school functions that is a firearm, weapon, or looks like a weapon
So a child's hand, forming a gun-like shape, "looks like a weapon?" Flippin' heck.

Nick Clegg: economic muppet

Oh dear, Nick Clegg has been expounding on topics economic and is keen to grab some cash:

"If we want to remain cohesive and prosperous as a society people of very considerable personal wealth have got to make a bit of an extra contribution," Clegg told the Guardian
Hmm. "A bit". What does this mean in the context of a planned £90bn deficit in the 2012 budget? And what does "very considerable personal wealth" mean - millionaires? Well, there are about 620,000 millionaires in the UK as of 2011. Let's hit them up for 5% of the poorest millionaire's wealth - £50,000 per head. That yields a cool £31bn one-time windfall. Sounds good?

Except - millionaires are not stupid, and employ good accountants. At the first sign of a £50K tax bill they're going to be exploring other options for their assets. You can expect the bulk of richer millionaires with £10mm+ of UK assets to be looking at selling off UK equities and property, and buying corresponding assets on the Continent, in the USA or even further afield. So you're immediately looking at a solid drop in UK equities, thereby further screwing over those poor non-public-sector sods who are trying to save for a pension. In the process they're generating write-offs so will be paying less tax. Nice one, Nick. Good luck on collecting more than 70% of that £31bn even in the first year.

Since many of those millionaires are "property" millionaires - owning a reasonably-sized house in London is enough to push you over the threshold - they won't have £50K in cash to give to the taxman. They will have to sell up, causing a glut of expensive property with very few people able to afford to buy it off them (those who could have likely also been hit for the tax). So only foreign-domiciled people with lots of cash, i.e. the Russian oligarchs and the Arabian oilygarchs, will be in the market. You've just engineered a massive transfer of wealth abroad.

Nick Clegg wants this to be "time limited" which means he wants to do this for at least two years. Good luck with that.

For reference, Nick, our problem is not that we are collecting insufficent tax. Our problem is that we are spending too much money. How are you going to fix that? How will you cap the runaway costs of NHS treatments, PFI bills, social security bills and the Department for Education in the years ahead? Bear in mind that the interest bill for the current national debt is only going up. This proposal fails even the laugh test as a statement of public policy.

For the sake of completeness I should point out that wealth taxes are not (in themselves) insane; the writings of Mr. Wadsworth on the subject of Land Value Tax are at least persuasive, though I'm not entirely convinced. The difference from Nick Clegg's proposal is that the LVT people see wealth (land in this case) tax as a replacement for income tax, not an adjunct to it. This at least allows the property millionaires to make a trade off in income versus location options (high-earning Londoners keeping their property as their income tax lowers, poor widows selling up and trading down).


A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury

Ah, Polly. I tried to stay away from writing about you, really I did. However your latest CiF piece, claiming that we need more talk from politicians, was irresistable:

Great speeches spring from times of heightened national drama. In democracies we make ambivalent demands on our leaders, rightly suspicious of any overreaching rhetoric yet demanding to be moved and impressed nonetheless.
Perhaps, Polly, we are suspicious of rhetoric because talk is cheap. Strange as it may seem to the political pundits of the modern media, most voters do not hang on every word that comes out of Westminster. I'm reminded of the "Yes, Prime Minister" episode where Jim Hacker complains that the newspapers didn't report his alleged rhetorical triumph in the House of Commons, where the authors note that perhaps the public took the view that the afternoon's activities comprised merely a bunch of overgrown schoolboys shouting at each other.

Polly puts her unsuspecting finger on the actual issue:

But Kinnock's speeches also stand as a marker that great oratory may not win elections. He was, after all, defeated by John Major, the most cliche-prone prime minister with the smallest vocabulary and flattest intonation of any in my political lifetime
Indeed; voters ignored the bidirectional shouting from the House of Commons, looked to see who was making the biggest claim on their wallets, and voted for the other guy. Follow the money, Polly. We don't care about what politicians say - they're all lying weasels. We care about what we think they'll do, based on their manifesto (modulo a healthy dose of skepticism) and what they've done in the past.

If you want to find a political speaker whose words caused great change, look at the example of the late but great Cory Aquino of the Philippines whose speech at an opposition rally during the 1986 People Power Revolution was characterised by P. J. O'Rourke (Republican Party Reptile):

There'd be a national day of prayer, when people take off work and go to church, she said. She asked the audience to boycott seven banks and other "crony corporations" including the San Miguel brewery. She asked them to delay paying their electric and water bills. And she asked for a "noise barrage" - a traditional Philippine protest - each evening after she'd spoken to them over a church-owned AM station. "And you should experiment with other forms of non-violent protest yourself," she said, "and let us know how they work."
That was it. Keep your money in a sock. Don't drink beer. And bang garbage-can lids together when you listen to the radio. Betsy, Tony and I walked away scratching our heads. The crowd dispersed quietly.
Ten days later, they had the country.

How is US healthcare reform going to work?

I've heard the arguments from both sides; the Republicans claiming that Obama's socialisation of American healthcare will cause the USA healthcare system to resemble Cuba's, and the Democrats claiming that the Affordable Care Act will allow everyone in America to have good healthcare and stick the bill for it to the "rich". But just how will this reform work? I thought I'd have a play with the numbers.

It seems fairly clear that the major problems with current American healthcare include:

  1. Treatment costs are very expensive compared with the same treatments in other Western countries;
  2. In practice, most working people are economically forced to obtain insurance via their employer's insurance plan (if they have one);
  3. Sick people have a very strong incentive to stay in their current employment because treatment for their current illness is unlikely to be covered if they change jobs;
  4. Once you are sick and out of an insurance plan, existing conditions exclusion means that you are screwed;
  5. There seems to be nowhere to obtain high-deductible catastrophic insurance plans (the only kind which really are "insurance") as all existing plans have lots of standard visits and treatments covered and are therefore expensive.
  6. Public assistance for the poor (Medicaid) is regionally very variable and depends on the availability of and demand for public hospital treatment in your area.
There are also the political complications: once you're over 65, you get Medicare, which effectively costs you nothing for most treatments so you are incentivised to obtain the most expensive treatment possible as long as it is even 1% better than the second option at half price, but no politician has been able to make reforms to this stick because over-65s are politically organised and very active when it comes to Medicare reform.

I'm fascinated to know how any healthcare reform will address the above. So let's take a claim that we are going to provide cover to the uninsured. Without cost reforms, this is going to cost an arm and a leg - say, 50mm people in the 300mm population USA do not have health insurance. We decide to cover their costs. A (highly optimistic) assumption that health insurance costs a healthy family of 4 $6000 annually means that you'll have to stump up $75bn annually. We'll use that as a proxy for actual cost of treatments for now. Where are you going to find that from federal taxes? Given 140mm tax filings of which say 60% had federal tax liability that gives 84mm people; spread the burden evenly and that's an extra $892 apiece. Which is a lot. Take an additional $900 out of ever tax payer's pay packet and you're not going to be popular. At all.

Oh, except that people without insurance are disproportionately likely to have conditions that require expensive treatment. So you can easily double that $6000.

Right, so just insuring the uninsured is going to cost you $1500 per taxpayer (and hence, the next election). So let's try to reduce those costs. Let's not pay as much for treatments. The dirty secret is, however, doctors don't have to work for the government. Sure, you can force costs down - however, for every 10% you cut reimbursement rates, you will lose another chunk of doctors and hospitals as they become unwilling to shoulder the cost and bureaucracy (because there will be bureaucracy, this is the federal government) of government patients. Ask anyone on Medicaid who lives outside a major metropolis how easy it is to find the care that they are theoretically entitled to.

And now there's the other aspect. Let's assume you succeed in squaring this circle and make public health affordable and available. Now you're going to get the sick families currently paying into employment insurance plans looking at their options and saying "hey, I can move jobs and get healthcare and pay less (or nothing)." And they do. So your bill has just doubled. So you start to means-test government assistance. So you've just stuck a huge marginal tax on the lower echelon of employed people...

If anyone can crack this nut in an economically sound way, they have my admiration. But don't confuse political plans with something that can be expected to work in any meaningful way.


Where Rupert Murdoch leads, we should follow

Apparently Rupert Murdoch was behind The Sun publishing pictures of naked Prince Harry:

In a message to a user who congratulated him on The Sun's challenge to the royal family, Murdoch said he "needed to demonstrate (that there is) no such thing as free press in UK."
Yes, because clearly the UK censors have prevented him from publishing whatever he... oh, wait.

Still, I fully endorse his decision to publish those pictures - or, indeed, naked pictures of any celebrity. The only caveat I would place on this is that any picture of a naked celebrity in The Sun or any other UK newspaper should be accompanied by a recent (no more than 1 week old) full frontal photo of a naked member of the newspaper's ownership or editorial team, selected via random ballot by the Press Complaints Commission.

Chutzpah, thy name is G4S

Oh, my aching sides. A major G4S shareholder feels hard done by and wants the UK Government to know it:

Neil Woodford, investment manager at Invesco Perpetual, which owns approximately 5pc of G4S’s shares, said the verbal dressing-down delivered to chief executive Nick Buckles at last month’s home affairs select committee meeting was like watching "a medieval persecution".
"If this is the way Parliament wants to treat business, please Parliament, don’t be surprised when businesses decide this isn't the country for them," Mr Woodford said.
First thing, Neil, let's clarify terminology. A medieval persecution could have involved being pressed to extract a plea, being placed in the stocks and pelted with food, perhaps a little pond-ducking if witchcraft were suspected, and finally burning at the stake. Being lectured by sanctimonious MPs may be annoying and tedious, but it's nothing like medieval persecution.

And why was the home affairs select committee in high dudgeon at G4S? Let us refresh our memories on the pre-Olympics security farce:

Home Secretary Theresa May said Monday that G4S had "repeatedly assured us that they would overshoot their target."
"G4S only told the government that they would be unable to meet their contractual arrangements last Wednesday [July 11th, 2 weeks before the Olympics opened] and we took immediate action," she said.
That's not a small error. Suddenly announcing 2 weeks before the Olympics that you are many thousands of people short (and not sure that the ones you have booked will actually turn up) is a weapons-grade cock-up by CEO Nick Buckles. I note that Nick joined G4S in 1985 as a project accountant. Given that he's 52 that implies a 1960 birthdate and therefore he must have joined pretty much immediately after qualifying as an accountant. Perhaps this farce is what happens when your CEO has never really worked anywhere other than your firm.

Neil's concern is understandable (if not a cause for sympathy). G4S reports first-half results on Monday, and I can't see them being anything short of ugly. An outflow of small investors and the resulting plunge in share price will not do Neil's funds any good at all. The three month performance of G4S shares is wonderful to behold. After the plunge from a high of 290 when the bad news came out, it bottomed at 240 and has steadily climbed back up to 265 or so. The last thing Neil wants is a general boycott of G4S by governments Europe-wide.

But what of Neil's concern that businesses may decide that this isn't the country for them? There are many reasons for business to dislike the UK's operating environment, but what of those businesses concerned that when they screw up as badly as G4S they will have their feet held to the legal fire? They flippin' well should be concerned. If they think they could screw up this badly, they shouldn't be in business in the first place.


Empire State bystander shootings - no surprise

I'm amazed that this doesn't happen more often: all 9 innocent casualties of the Empire State building shooting were hit by police bullets:

The officers unloaded a total of 16 rounds at a disgruntled former apparel designer, killing him after he shot and killed a co-worker and engaged in a gunbattle with police, authorities have said.
The Zero Hedge article has a video of the confrontation where the guy turns to face the police officers pursuing him, appears to pull out a gun, and then staggers and finally collapses as the bullets hit him. The apparent shooting distance looks to be around 10 feet from the video, although it could easily be 5 feet more for the second officer.

Unlike a lot of commentators, I'm not particularly surprised at the high bystander casualty numbers. This shooting happened at 9am so the streets would have been packed with people. It looks as if the closer officer was firing more or less along the kerb-line of the street, and the farther officer at an angle that would have gone diagonally across the street to the far sidewalk, so the bullets would have had a long way to fly before they got stopped by any buildings or street furniture. But why did so many shots miss at such (relatively) short range?

The police officers would have been reflexively firing their service weapons (9mm automatic pistols) until the threat - Jeffrey Johnson, carrying a .45 caliber firearm - was neutralised, which generally means bleeding out on the floor and separated from his weapon. With the suddenly developing situation, seeing Johnson reach for his weapon, the cops' fight-or-flight reflexes would have kicked in and dumped adrenaline into their systems, causing their peripheral blood vessels to contract and muscles to shake. The chance of their first couple of rounds hitting Johnson, even from 10 feet away, would have been fairly low. They would have attempted to walk their rounds on to Johnson's centre of mass (chest), firing maybe once a second. As he dropped - which he seemed to do quite suddenly - he would have fallen out of the line of their fire and the officers would have taken a moment to realise he was down while they were still firing and bullets passing through were Johnson used to be standing.

You can't really blame the NYPD for this. Johnson clearly wasn't in the mood to stop and surrender; once he appeared to go for his weapon, this was only going to end one way. But why were the officers such (apparently) bad shots? Lack of practice. Look at Joseph Goldstein's report on 2010 NYPD shootings:

Last year, 52 officers from the New York Police Department fired a total of 236 bullets during confrontations with suspects. About half of the officers used a two-handed grip on their firearm, as the department encourages, while the others shot one-handed. And in a sign of just how tense these 33 separate shooting episodes were, and how rapidly they unfolded, only one officer reported using the gun’s sight before firing.
So shootings are relatively rare, and regular patrol officers are very, very unlikely to fire their weapons in anger: there are about 9000 patrol cars in the NYPD, so let's say about 9000 patrol officers - that's only about 6% of officers firing in anger. Many patrol officers can go their whole career without firing their weapon. It's not surprising that the first time they fire, the bullets don't all go into the offender.


How to date posh girls

Pity poor Tom Beardsworth, Oxford university student who penned a rather amusing piece on how to date posh girls in the Oxford student newspaper "Cherwell":

"If she does brave it and travels north to see you, be sensitive. As she disembarks the train, refrain from mocking her attire (wellingtons and a ski jacket – 'but I thought it'd be freezing') and instead congratulate her on having made it thus far."
Tom, a PPE student who went to a Manchester grammar school and who therefore is in a good position to know what he's writing about, duly created the mother of all furores with professionally outraged women blasting the alleged slights against their sisters. I wonder what the reaction would have been if he'd written it from the other perspective - advising posh girls on how to date a hard-up northern boy.

The usual suspects were out with their rent-a-quotes:

Sarah Pine, 20, the women's officer of the student union, said: "Treating women like objects that lack any autonomy in who they date or sleep with is outdated and boring. If this article is trying to be funny, the author needs to realise his audience won't be impressed with such irrelevant stereotypes about women."
Well, Sarah, we must congratulate you on perpetuating the stereotype of OUSU women's officers. I rather think that Tom was trying to entertain rather than impress, and from the excerpts in the DT he seemed to be doing a good job. I note that you too are a PPE student - perhaps you were jealous that someone two years younger could write better than you?

The editors of "Cherwell" didn't really help the cause of journalism, promptly and spinelessly rolling over and withdrawing the piece:

In a statement the editors of Cherwell said they were "very sorry" if offence had been taken, adding the piece was intended as satire of sexist dating guides found in the mainstream media. They did not wish to create a poor impression of the university for new students, they added.
If I were a self-respecting student looking at this ugly affair, it wouldn't be Tom's piece that gave me a poor impression of the university.

I took the liberty of Googling Ms. Pine and located her OUSU Women's Officer manifesto:

We need to maintain string links with organisations engaged with social justice across Oxford... I will make links with the Oxford Feminist Network... founded an open feminist group... Wadham LGBTQ officer...
Tell you what, Tom, why not write your next article on how to date a radical feminist? If you're going to go down in flames anyway, you might as well do it with style.

GCSE wailing and gnashing of teeth

Much sound and fury resulting from today's GCSE results:

Up to 10,000 pupils are believed to have missed out on C grades in English — considered a good pass — as results registered their only annual decline since 1988.
Ok, let's reset expectations here. A C grade in 1987 English 'O' Level was a good pass, demonstrating a reasonable understanding of spelling and grammar. The pass rate for 'O' Levels generally at grade C or above in 1987 was just north of 30% (Figure 3.7) Note that boys and girls had virtually identical scoring averages at 'O' Level; only when GCSE was introduced did girls start to rise significantly above boys.

To see the trend, look at the 2001 GCSE results:

The National Association of Head Teachers, looking forward to the day when every subject is awarded at least a grade C, said such a "quantum leap" would require "urgent solutions to the teacher recruitment crisis".
Apparently agreeing, the CBI said it was alarming for competitiveness that more than 40 per cent of the entries in English, maths and science failed to achieve a grade C or above.
So just under 60% of students taking GCSE English (and that's pretty much all students) got a grade C or better in 2001. What about in 2012?
The drop in the number of pupils awarded good results in English proved controversial. Nationally, 669,534 sat GCSEs in English language or a joint language and literature paper, but the proportion of C grades dropped from 65.4 last year to 63.9 per cent. It equates to a fall of just over 10,000 on the number of pupils expected to gain good marks.
Oh noes! Only 63.9%? How unfair! So, how unfair was it to the 2001 pupils of whom less than 60% scored C or above? Was the class of 2001 noticeably more thick than the classes of 2011 or 2012? If not, why the discrepancy in grades? What about the class of 1987?

You do have to feel sorry for some of the pupils in this year, though. The goalposts moved, but not in the direction that their teachers expected; therefore their grade expectations (on which university applications were based) were overly ambitious. Against that, however, every student this year endured the same penalty; I expect a frantic scrambling by 6th form colleges to reassess acceptable entry levels.

Grading on a curve is (IMHO) the least worst solution to GCSE. Nearly every child in the age bracket takes GCSEs, so by grading on a curve for widely taken subjects you provide a relatively objective assessment of the ability of that child against their peers; since one year is unlikely to be much smarter or dumber than another year, there's reasonable read-across. Note that this doesn't work for more selective subjects where the academic profile of students is very different from the main, e.g. Latin and Greek, but let's solve one problem at a time.


CSI Balamory?

Pure genius from Uncyclopedia: CSI: Balamory:

CSI: Balamory! CSI: Balamory!
Here is the First/Second Miss Hoolie to tell us that story but how does is all begin?
Cut in half, shot in the head or whacked in the face with a bottle of gin?
Is today to die at home or get beaten because you're gay?
Drowning in a pool or spying on the kids at the Nursery?
I was pleased[1] to see they kept the rhyming scheme at the end there.

The episode also addresses important points that the CBeebies series neglects. Who does the MOT on Edie McCredie's bus, if she owns the only garage on the island? Who interviews rape victim on the islands if PC Plum is the only officer? However, I'm not convinced by the Archie back-story; a man wearing a skirt in a pink castle with a posh English accent? He's clearly trying way too hard to appear effeminate. There's something murky going on there.

[1] No, not really.

Celestial appetites

Did anyone else see the headline:

Star is caught devouring planet
and immediately think of Rosie O'Donnell?

[ I've heard of "good taste" and want no part of it.]

Ryanair boarding passes: brickbats all round

The Telegraph is in high dudgeon about the cost of boarding passes on Ryanair, in a vastly entertaining article:

Ms McLeod, from Newbury, Berkshire, complained that on August 15 she was charged €300 (£236) to print out five boarding passes on a flight home from Spain.
For those following along from home, that's €60 per person for a piece of paper. Now, Ryanair's money-raising strategy (charge for anything that anyone does beyond breathing) is well-known; if you don't want to pay all the supplementary charges, don't fly on Ryanair. However, €60 for printing out a boarding pass from an automated machine is, for me, squarely in the territory of taking-the-piss. £60 (the fee for flights from the UK) is not even funny. If you want to talk about taxing the poor, this is a prime example.

But the plot thickens! Note that this was on the return leg of the journey:

Mrs McLeod said: "We went on holiday for 15 days and so I couldn't print the return boarding passes because you can only do that two weeks before the flight.
"I had the passes on my phone as pdf documents and thought this would be sufficient. What was originally meant to be a cheap holiday ended up costing a lot."
Interesting! Now even the cheap-arse domestic airlines in the USA allow you to present a QR code on your phone to the optical scanner at security and the gate; this is on the paper boarding pass but also included in the email they send you when you check in online. This rather sounds like Ryanair is deliberately ignoring money-saving technical advances in order to bilk customers of their money. Michael O'Learey is a very astute businessman, but clearly he's still an arsehole of at least the second order.

This story wouldn't be complete, however, without a little journalistic hyperbole:

She said the flights had been advertised at £166 per person but once priority seat allocation, baggage fees and the boarding passes had been paid for, the family had forked out £1,650.
A 10x markup! Horreur! But - hang on - isn't that first figure a per-person amount, and the second figure covers 5.5 people (one one-way flight)? So, given that 1-way tickets are seldom much cheaper than round-trips, that's £996 vs £1650. Expensive, sure, but much closer than the paragraph suggests. A hearty smack around the chops to article writers John-Paul Ford Rojas and Oliver Smith, then.


Cuts in top brass? Not if the unions have their say

I read the headline Hammond axes defence top brass in £4m cull and had two thoughts:

  1. Really? This isn't just some shuffling of posts or folding jobs into the Civil Service?
  2. £4m isn't even noise in a £33bn defence budget - it's about one hundredth of one percent.
It does seem, however, that this is an actual cut - 26 senior military and civil service posts will go, and not be refilled elsewhere. Wow. I've been so jaded by MoD spending and over-employment that even this tiny, tiny cut seems like a momentous event. Lewis Page would no doubt approve though he, like me, would only describe this as "a good start".

You can tell that this is an actual cut by the scum-sucking parasites that come out of the woodwork to protest:

Last night critics warned that the cuts could damage morale in the Armed Forces if it led to frontline officers being burdened with more paperwork.
Well, if extra pointless paperwork appears, we follow it back to its sources and fire them too. Rinse and repeat. But what astounded me was what came from Labour's former Defence Minister:
Labour MP and former Defence Minister Kevan Jones said: 'Philip Hammond has already said that he has balanced the Ministry of Defence budget, so he needs to explain why these measures are being taken.'
Philip Hammond is getting the MoD to waste less money on pointless top brass (no mean feat in itself) and you are demanding that he explain why he's doing this? What kind of Defence Minister are you, Jones - oh, a former GMB union official and a Government + Public Policy graduate. That explains why you see the armed forces as a trough for funding full employment rather than, say, as an actual fighting machine. You've never had a useful job in your life. You even criticised Joanna Lumley:
Jones described Joanna Lumley's behaviour following her fight for Gurkha rights as 'irritating'.
which puts you beyond the pale.

As long as weasels like Kevan Jones are able to gain power over the MoD, its dysfunctional behaviour is never going to be fixed. Kevan, why don't you go and do something actually useful to the UK Armed Forces like join the Catering Corps and peel some potatoes - it's probably the only practical thing for which you're qualified.

Kicking a man when he's down

It must have been rather disheartening for the late Osama bin Laden to hear the helicopters hovering next to his compound, the bark of rifle fire and the bangs of breaching charges, and realise that he was going to meet his maker without ever seeing the prospect of the Caliphate restored. Still, win some, lose some.

What must really irk him is that now anyone with $325 can re-enact the Operation Neptune's Spear raid in a paintball game:

... once enough adrenaline is flowing the participants are lead to confront terrorist Osama bin Laden in his secret hideout - which also doubles up as a bare room in Sealed Mindset's 10,000-square-foot studio.
Weapons poised, the Navy SEALS boot in the door and then kill Osama bin Laden in reign [sic] of bullets - paintballs.
I note two widely-smiling un-burka'd women toting M-16s and AR-15s in the article photos. That's really rubbing salt in the wound, no?


The Guardian misses the point on Facebook

I'm guessing that the editorial team at The Grauniad bought shares in FB at their opening price, and over the past three months have been increasingly unhappy at their loss. Now they're telling us about just how unhappy they are:

... this is about insiders profiting at the expense of outsiders. Mark Zuckerberg and senior staffers at Facebook have been able to cash out of stock they bought ultra-cheap before flotation. Morgan Stanley and other underwriters will have made a mint on the deal. And Wall Street traders who jumped ship early will also have done well.
Hmm. Facebook selling its stock cheap to FB execs is a matter for Facebook's shareholders - which, shock, seems to include mostly FB execs. I'm less convinced that the underwriters did well out of the floatation, given the amount of support they had to lend the shares at $38 - which then marched steadily down to $19, hence this editorial. And yes, Wall Street traders who bought low and sold high (in the first day trading) will have done OK. Those who didn't sell before FB went below $38, never to return - not so much. Have you got the figures of the profiteers vs the losers, Guardian eds? If not, why not shut up before you embarrass yourself further.

FB is another example of capitalism working as intended. Those with poor judgement in valuing a company lose money; those who cranked the numbers on the FB ad revenue just stayed away (or went short), and we now have a far better idea about what FB is worth. FB recent joiners really got screwed though - I believe that anyone with FB stock units will be paying tax on those units based on the IPO price. Ouch. 1000 FB shares at a 33% (federal + state) tax is a $12,540 tax bill, but the shares themselves are only worth $19,000 currently and could go lower.

As the Grauniad notes:

When Google joined the stock market in 2004, it held a "Dutch auction", inviting investors to bid for stock at whatever price they thought fair. It has drawbacks, but such a system prevents a bunch of Wall Street insiders getting in on a stock early, then dumping it.
That's... a little bit simplistic. Nevertheless, perhaps the NASDAQ should randomly require 33% of new listings to price via the Dutch auction. It would be interesting to compare their results to the regular listings. If the Grauniad wants real data on Wall Street's rake-off, this is how to obtain it.


Sensible talk on rail fares

With all the current wailing, gnashing of teeth and casting into the outer darkness on the subject of the rising railway fares in the UK, Jackart talks a remarkable amount of pithy sense on the subject:

There has been an astonishing amount of bollocks being spoken about train-fare rises. Especially commuters, whose season tickets are rising by hundreds of pounds. "The trains are crowded" they complain. Yes, and cutting rail fares will help that, how exactly?
Nail, meet head. Crowding of trains is a signal; a signal that the price for travelling on that particular train is too cheap. If peak hour trains are crowded, and off-peak trains are quieter, then peak fares should rise to force people at the margins to choose the less-crowded trains. Bingo, less crowdedness and more income which could (at least theoretically) be fed back into improved and extended rail infrastructure.


Progressive Insurance should have hired The Equalizer

As recounted by Da Tech Guy, one awful, tragic traffic accident has resulted in Progressive Insurance getting kicked forcefully in the nuts courtesy of The Internet. In this situation, The Internet has become Edward Woodward:

Control: I always admired your powers of deduction.
Robert McCall: Thank you. Which brings me to the main thing still to be resolved.
Control: Which is?
Robert McCall: Why the hell you lied to me!
Control: It's what I do for a living, Robert.

Matt Fisher's sister had a Progressive Insurance policy. Matt's sister was killed in a traffic accident. Progressive Insurance defended Matt's sister's killer in order to avoid paying out on the policy. Since Matt's sister's killer was found guilty by a jury, I expect Progressive to finally cough up the 2/3 of the policy payout that they've been hanging on to. Nevertheless, their desperate rearguard action here smacks of a firm that would rather pay their lawyers than their policyholders.

Israel and Iran

The leak-and-counter-leak narrative for the prospective Israel-Iran conflict continues with the latest alleged plans for an Israeli strike being "leaked":

Richard Silverstein told the BBC he had been given an internal briefing memo for Israel's eight-member security cabinet, which outlined what the Israeli military would do to prevent Iran developing nuclear weapons.

My conjecture is that Israel's operational security is actually rather good on average, and there's no reason to think that these plans bear any relationship to a) what's actually being planned, or b) what's going to happen. Mr. Silverstein may believe that his memo relates to actual Cabinet discussions, but I wouldn't bet a penny that we're being allowed to find out any more than the Cabinet in question wants us to find out. I note that the US government isn't being told any more than the public is being told; I base this assertion on the unfortunate tendency of various USA officials to leak any interesting snippet of classified military information in a New York (Washington DC?) minute.

As Michael Ledeen wrote about whether the Israeli strike is imminent:

I don't know, and I don’t know if anyone around here — including Petraeus and Panetta — knows. The one thing I do know is that in order to answer the "will they or won't they?" question, you’ve got to know what the Israelis think they know about the Iranians.
Which you don't. Nor I. So shut up and stop sucking your thumb.

There are four very distinct sets of information:

  1. What the Israeli military is actually planning;
  2. What the Israeli military would like people to think it is planning;
  3. What the Israeli military believes about Iran's facilities;
  4. What the Israeli military would like people to believe it believes about Iran's facilities.
If I were one of the planners (and let me take this opportunity to assure my audience that I am not) I would be keen to leak a number of plausible variants of a plan to the media; not so much to mislead the Iranian military about my plans as to pre-emptively muddy the waters in case some aspects of the actual plan were to leak.

So what's this alleged plan?

The purported leaked Israeli memo suggests that the military operation would begin with a massive cyber-attack against Iran's infrastructure, followed by a barrage of ballistic missiles launched at its nuclear facilities.
My arse. I can believe some aspects of the cyber-attack idea, but it's unlikely to be "massive"; more likely subtle and very directed, in order to avoid any advance warning of hostilities. Ballistic missiles will do sod all damage against hardened buried targets like most of Iran's facilities, unless you stick a nuclear warhead on them.

The most likely actual attack against Iran is going to be an approach that hasn't been widely publically discussed. I have my own conjectures on the matter but will keep them under my hat. Of course, the issues about Iranian retaliation and likely Israeli casualties discussed in the leak still stand - even if the Iranians aren't sure what happened, they'll blame Israel - and so the leak serves a useful secondary purpose in informing the Iranians that the Israelis are quite prepared to take civilian casualties as a consequence of their actions.


The problems with China?

I have no way of assessing how accurate or representative these articles are, but Mark Kitto's account of why he has left China and will not return makes fascinating reading:

During the course of my magazine business, my state-owned competitor (enemy is more accurate) told me in private that they studied every issue I produced so they could learn from me. They appreciated my contribution to Chinese media. They proceeded to do everything in their power to destroy me.
Also see Owen Johnson's long but very detailed and thoughtful 2011 post on Why China is not going to be a superpower:
The overall result was an incredibly complex web of fiscal dealings that was nowhere under the control of, or even visible to, any one person or organization. Officials at every level could cook their books to reflect whatever fiscal picture they wanted to present to their superiors, and these carefully massaged fictions made their way up the line to the Imperial government, which therefore had no real idea of the state of its finances.

The essential information is that mainland Chinese culture is dominated by a corrupt bureaucratic system that treats foreign residents and businessmen as useful fools, worth tolerating until everything of value is extracted but then thrown out, assets confiscated, intellectual property copied, with no form of legal redress. One wonders how long they think they can make this work...

The Party censorship of the Internet in particular should cause concern. What, exactly, do they wish to conceal from their people about the Tiananmen Square "incidents"? They surely can't be ashamed of what they did there?

Give your employer your social login?

I was fascinated by this piece on the Beeb about prospective employers demanding the login information from their job candidates. Can it ever be justified?

My reflexive response, is "hell, no!" but I think the real answer is a little more subtle. However, let's tackle the easy case straight away. If a prospective employer asks you for your username and password (as happened to Robert Collins in the Beeb article) then they are almost certainly making you violate the terms of service of your social media account (Facebook, G+, Twitter etc.) and you should tell them to take a running jump.

What if they just ask you for your social media account info so they can look at what you're posting publically? No harm there, right? Um, well...

There are very few positions where the social media postings of a prospective hire are relevant. You are under no contractual agreement with this company, so there are no non-disclosure agreements to violate. If they can Google your name and find your postings, fine; you are however under no obligation to assist them. (This is obviously a better cover for John Smith than it is for Thomas Wanker.) The only exception to this that I can think of is if you are under consideration for a PR-type role where your public social media persona is a significant issue. In this case it's only reasonable for the employer to ask you to point them at your posts, in case there's anything there that may blow up out of proportion if they hire you.

Perhaps you don't post anything of note publically? They may require you to give them access to your posts (in FB, by you "friend"ing them - in Google+ it's a lot more complex, since different posts are visible to different circles and they have no idea how many circles you have, or to which circles you post.) This is really treading on your toes, and even if you are being hired for a social role you should consider whether you regard it as a reasonable request.

In most cases, however, this request by a company's HR department is a very useful piece of information to a prospective hire. It tells you that the HR department is stuffed with humourless control freaks, and you should tell them to take a running jump. Alternatively, construct a new Facebook account; add a few very, very understanding friends, and make some suitably tasteful posts about Internet shock sites such as goatse.cx. You won't get hired, but if you are imaginative you can get the HR drone on the phone as you give them your details ("I don't like to send this information out via email, it's not secure") and ask them if they can view your posts OK.

Incidentally, if you use social media and you are employed, you should without question read the Evil HR Lady on how to avoid being fired.


Giles Fraser on Ayn Rand

Had I had popcorn in the house, I would have nuked a bag before I sat down to read this: Giles Fraser takes on Ayn Rand in CiF (via Paul Ryan):

Rand's cause was to celebrate what she called "the virtue of selfishness", to denigrate the poor as scroungers and to celebrate the muscular individualism of the creative heroes of capitalism.
Hmm, maybe the passage of time has clouded Fraser's memories. Certainly she celebrated the virtue of selfishness (as did no less than Adam Smith - "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest") and the muscular individualism of Hank Rearden et al, but she certainly didn't denigrate the poor as scroungers. Rather, if memory serves, it was the professional politicos, labour organisers, incompetent businessmen and lobbyists (Wesley Mouch and friends) whose relentless scrounging on and taxing of business profits led to everyone going John Galt. The poor barely got a mention, beyond suffering from the shut-down of factories in their towns and increasingly erratic power and transport systems.

Let's take Fraser's conclusion from this:

For Rand, the good Samaritan was not simply a chump: he was in fact doing something wicked. We are saved only by selfishness. So how can an American politician, who has described himself as a "staunch Catholic" and in what is supposed to be an electorate dominated by Christian values, side with one who so thoroughly rejected all the teachings of Jesus?
Well, Giles, if I came up with a conclusion that was at odds with the apparent well-established facts, the first thing I'd check would be my logic, and the second thing I'd check would be my assumptions. But then, I'm not a professional column writer. Would the good Samaritan be regarded as wicked by Rand? She may have regarded him as foolish (giving away his time and resources for free, in contrast to the philosophy in Galt's Gulch) but her view on wickedness seemed to me to be reserved for those who took what was not theirs. I also seem to recall Rearden and Dagny Taggart giving of their time and resources for others in trying to make their businesses work despite the repeated raids on their profits and forced repurchases by the aforesaid scroungers. (Incidentally, I don't see Giles commenting on Rearden and Taggart's unarguable sexual immorality as something for Ryan to repudiate. I wonder why?)

I'm also interested in Giles' leap of logic:

And Ryan's deeds, and in particular his budget plan for slashing the role of the state, are pure Rand, as a group of Jesuits from Georgetown University have insisted
That seems a bit dubious to me. I can see a Randian argument that taxes should not be taken from business and workers - is that what Giles is referring to? - but nothing specific about how governments should spend the money they have. If he is referring to Ryan's (rather optimistic IMO) plan to balance the budget then surely this has a far stronger Biblical backing: I can't see any theological justification for defaulting on loans, whether by explicit default or implicit in money printing. Remember that in Biblical times there was no welfare state - the poor were taken care of by family or private charity, if at all. The welfare state may or may not be a good idea but it's not strictly biblical.

So let's take Giles' conclusion:

As the Ryan case aptly demonstrates, the Christian right is neither: that is, Christian nor right.
If, by Giles' logic, Ryan is not Christian, then surely by definition you can't judge the rest of the Jesus-favouring Republican voters (assuming this is what Giles means by "right") by his beliefs? Giles has also failed to even try to construct an argument as to whether Ryan's belief are good or bad for the USA, he's just made a sweeping assertion that government spending less is a bad thing. Remember that any dollar taken from a taxpaying citizen is a dollar less for that citizen to spend on products and services provided by others. The reliance on any USA government spending that dollar wisely is... optimistic at best.

I'm now starting to think that the main reason for Giles Fraser's career in the CofE coming to a screeching halt wasn't just his support for Occupy trashing St. Paul's; the man can't even make a coherent argument.


Olymics Closing Ceremony liveblog

[9:03] A typical day in London? I hope some appropriate music to celebrate London Underground (Amateur Transplants, I'm looking at you).
[9:08] All that newspaper next to the Olympic Flame makes me nervous.
[9:10] The Italian Job and Only Fools and Horses? Practically no-one born outside the British Isles is going to get that one.
[9:11] Madness! Shame they didn't get the Young Ones actors along as well. I so want that Union Flag skirt the flying saxophonist is playing. I wonder what the kids singing along thought about Suggs and the guys.
[9:13] The Household Guards playing ska and Blur. Now I've seen everything.
[9:14] Is that really Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe under those conical hats?
[9:16] Wand Erection. Oh dearie me. They look about 12 years old. Presumably this is the ceremony organisers saying "look, we have a huge range of British music - we have the really crap stuff too."
[9:18] Some of the child dancers look as if they've had a few Chicken Nuggets too many. Newsflash: just because it works for Usain Bolt, doesn't mean it'll work for you too.
[9:19] The Stomp dancing with six-foot poles and hurling around dustbin lids is presumably designed to recall the urban riots of last year...
[9:20] Cleaning London's streets with brooms? Whom are they kidding? You need heavy industrial gear.
[9:21] OK, the demonic mimes are freaking me out.
[9:23] Ah, Waterloo Sunset. Hope the French appreciate this.
[9:30] Musical montage time. Oh, the tears. (Will they do a similar run for the sweat, and then the blood?)

[9:31] Now they're just rubbing it in for that poor fencer.
[9:32] "The Crying Games"? OMG. Will Jaye Davidson make an appearance? Bet the USA will cut to adverts for that scene.
[9:33] The Australian flag bearer is a sailor. I'd imagine you have to be pretty good to make it as a sailor there; fall overboard and you'll be lucky to scramble back in the boat before a shark, croc, jellyfish or sea snake gets you.
[9:34] Oscar! Let's face it, there was no other choice for the SA flag carrier.
[9:35] These ceremonies are a really test for recognising obscure flags. Was that Kazakhstan - yellow sun, light blue flag?
[9:37] The Japanese team are waving the Rising Sun flag in one hand, and Union Jack in the other. Good on them.
[9:38] Announcers enumerating all the national acclamations that medal winners might receive.
[9:39] And now the French doing the same bi-national flag waving. They don't look quite as enthusiastic about it, for some reason.
[9:41] Mozambique is spelled with a cedilla'd C instead of the Z. Who knew?
[9:43] What happens when the confetti drifts across the Olympic Flame? Shades of the doves in Atlanta (if that wasn't an urban myth).
[9:44] The Finns are smiling! You don't see that very often.
[9:46] I like the South Korean blazer ensembles. Very sharp.
[9:47] The Canucks are sporting short denim vests, nearly bolero jacket style.
[9:48] I hope the lightbulbs on those blue bowler hats are compact fluorescent, not incandescent. Though I can see a few have gone out already. Be a bit messy if they break.
[9:52] If The Congo and Tonga merged, would they become The Conga?
[9:53] What's with those white boxes or tables queuing up at the entrance?
[9:54] When Brazil does their presentation of what to expect in Rio 2016, I hope they'll get Rubens Barrichello to do a few donuts in his F1 car. I doubt they'll mention the favelas though.
[9:55] Kate Bush! Fantastic. But what are the boxes for?
[9:56] Oh, here comes the "blood" video montage by the look of things...
[9:57] I wonder if they're trying to build a modern Stonehenge? The boxes have me baffled. Some have a small hole in the centre of a couple of squares. What's it for?
[9:58] Sliding off the bike, that's going to hurt in the morning. Much like having Jade Jones slap you around the head.

[10:00] No, I really don't get the white pyramid symbolism. Do we get an explanation?
[10:01] Interesting, they kept the men's Marathon victory ceremony for tonight.
[10:03] If you win your country's first medal since 1972, and it's the gold for the men's marathon, they should probably make you Prime Minister when you get home.
[10:04] The band are making a good job of the Ugandan anthem, considering that it's probably not been on their most-practiced list.
[10:07] The volunteers standing up on the podium look rather nervous. Yes, about 1bn people are watching you right now (or, delayed by a good few hours for NBC watchers).
[10:09] The usher on stage: "Right you lot, you've had your 2 mins of fame, now bugger off, I've got my next act coming."
[10:10] Bohemian Rhapsody: we're going to have tens of thousands of strained necks in the morning.
Dammit, they switched to Lennon's "Imagine". How come he gets the full track played and Freddie doesn't? They're both dead, there can't be a sensibility issue...
[10:12] Building a puzzle on stage. Is it a giant sheep?
[10:13] No, a giant Lennon face. Disturbing. I would have preferred a sheep.
[10:14] Georgie! Freedom! Easy with the hip thrusting there George, you're not as young as you were.
[10:19] George gets to sing two full tracks! He's clearly twice as good as Lennon.
[10:24] For a moment there I thought we were going to be treated to a Mods+Rockets stunt brawl in the middle of the arena. Kaiser Chiefs could have sung "I Predict a Riot". Is this a Wiggo homage?
[10:26] Picture sequence reminding you that David Bowie was even weirder than you remember.
[10:27] A reminder that Britain can do clothing as ridiculous as anything elsewhere in the world.
[10:29] And models as pouty as anyone else in the world.

[10:31] Annie Lennox, on what looks like The Flying Dutchman. Don't see the connection yet. She's still got a good set of pipes on her though.
[10:36] Who's this chap on the guitar? Looks like a slightly grungier version of Prince Harry. Am I out of touch?
[10:38] The tightrope walker sets fire to a dummy. The symbolism escapes me.
[10:39] Oh dear, Russell Brand is going to go "a little bit zany". Spare us.
[10:41] Bond: they may be good classical musicians but I'm guessing their primary selling point is not their music.
[10:42] This is, however, exactly the kind of exposed-flesh performance that I would have associated with Russell Brand.
[10:44] An inflatable octopus? What's that got to do with anything? Do we even have octopi in British waters? Fatboy Slim is the octopus brain?
[10:46] Jessie J: It's not about the money, money, money - just don't mention the £10bn price tag...
[10:50] I didn't realise "Dynamite" was a Taio Cruz original - I've only heard it from China Anne McClain on A.N.T. Farm.
[10:55] Who's in the taxis? Oh lordy, I think I know...
[10:56] Did Victoria design these costumes? Enquiring minds want to know.
[10:57] Vickie certainly doesn't look like she's enjoying herself.
[10:58] Driving off in different directions symbolising the group's split? (Meow!)

[11:00] Just noticed the quote on the stage: "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." I prefer the Pratchett "When a man is tired of Ankh Morpork, he is tired of ankle-deep slurry."
[11:01] The Mancunian brothers are back: Noel and Liam's "Wonderwall" sounding as cheerful and upbeat as ever. I preferred the Mike Flowers version.
[11:03] Thank goodness that's over. Please, please something upbeat now.
[11:05] This is starting to get a bit trippy.
[11:06] Someone online just commented on the accident risk of the Spice Girls taxi-surfing. It might have a high risk of incident, but the worst-case impact was a complete loss of the Spice Girls. I wouldn't sweat it.
[11:07] Now this is upbeat - Eric Idle conducting "Always look on the bright side of life." Rollerskating nuns?
[11:08] We've had Idle - are we going to have Cleese and/or Palin? Pleaseohpleaseohplease...
[11:10] Many of the non-British audience at this point will be checking to see what they've been drinking.
[11:11] "We want to fire you out of a cannon with half a billion people watching - so if anything goes wrong, at least you'll be very famous."
[11:12] Muse, as heard in "Twilight". Nevertheless they seem quite good.
[11:14] One wonders how the TV commentators in Morocco, Azerbaijan, Mongolia and Malaysia (for example) are explaining this performance to their audience.
[11:16] They got Freddie to sing! I guess he didn't charge much of a performance fee.
[11:17] It's Dr. Brian May! After this jam he'll be asking for the stadium lights to be turned down so he can give a short presentation on the Perseids shower.
[11:20] Jessie J and Brian May singing "We Will Rock You". Well, Freddie's outfits were probably about as self-restrained as Jessie's...
[11:22] Was Freddie Mercury reincarnated into Jessie J, and did he mind?
[11:23] I hear the Greek national anthem is 10 bars shorter this year - austerity, you know.
[11:26] Looks like they have two Bootnecks carrying the Olympic flag, but no Paras. Odd.
[11:27] Is this Boris Johnson's moment?
[11:28] They have given the flag to Boris Johnson. What could possibly go wrong?
[11:29] The Brazilian athletes are celebrating the flag handover - wait until you see the bill, guys...

[11:30] Are we into extra time now?
[11:31] Aha, the famous Brazilian dancing street-sweeper. Nice touch.
[11:33] Wonder if they'll get O Cristo Redemptor into the performance.
[11:36] Ho hum, they need to pick up the pace a bit. They had quite an act to follow.
[11:39] Well, they brought out Pelé - that's a start... would have been nice for him to kick a ball around a bit, at least.
[11:40] Lord Coe and Mr. Rogue. "Brazil, it's all your problem now".
[11:41] Translation: "We didn't screw things up too badly, heaven knows how. Good job by the Army, good thing Group 4 screwed the pooch so badly that they made us bring the Army in in the first place".
[11:44] Translation: "Thank you to the people of Britain for keeping the cash flowing in even past the point where it ceased to be funny."
[11:45] "The spirit of these Olympics will inspire a generation" == "please keep the £120mm/year flowing to our prospective 2016 Olympians".
[11:46] Prince Harry is out with his sister-in-law this evening?
[11:47] I notice Jacques Rogges didn't try speaking in French - he'd have been thrown into the Thames, most likely.
[11:48] "You have shown the world the best of British hospitality" - with official catering by McDonalds.
[11:49] For goodness' sake, Jacques, try cracking a smile once in a while.
[11:51] This descending of the flame looks more than a little hazardous.
[11:52] Take That - of course. Good on Gary Barlow for appearing despite his awful loss last week.
[11:55] Probably wise to not attempt a Beijing-level fireworks display - it would have levelled most of East London. (Well, that may be more of a feature than a bug).
[11:56] Phoenix to the Flames - wasn't that a Robbie Williams number?
[11:57] Darcy Bussell is holding up well, though I notice she's quite restrained in her moves. Still elegance personified.

[12:00] I don't want to think about how big the Olympic stadium's gas bill from Centrica is going to be this month.
[12:01] All together now: "The Who?"
[12:08] I take back my earlier comment. We do seem to be trying to level East London.


Next time you read someone in The Grauniad calling British society "racist"...

...think back to 11th August when tens of thousands of British sports fans cheered a young man born in Somalia over the finish line of the 5000 metres run, rose to their feet as a Jamaican sprinter team crashed their way through a world record, and cheered both Mo Farah and Usain Bolt as they clowned it up on the victory podium.

A special mention to Dutch judo bronze Edith Bosch who, enraged by a lout throwing a bottle onto the track behind the 100m men's finalists punched out the offender after which he was thrown out of the stadium and arrested:

"Some drunk in front of me throws a bottle onto the track!! I hit him … Unbelievable," she said, adding the hashtags "angry" and "norespect".
She revealed in her next tweet that she had missed the race in the commotion: "Dammit ... and I missed the 100m! What a BEEP".
This is one aspect of "the new civility" which I feel we should encourage.


Voter ID - infringing civil rights?

Alex Slater (who's he? ah, the MD of a leading Democratic communications firm) writes in The Grauniad on the rush by Republican states to disenfranchise the poor and ethnic minorities by imposing ID requirements for voting. So no possible axe to grind there...

Beneath the foam-flecked surface of diatribes against the "racist" approach:

Attorney General Eric Holder summed it up perfectly when he called these voter ID measures the equivalent of a "poll tax", at the NAACP summit in July.
(no evidence of voter fraud, eh, Alex?) there are nuggets of valid concerns:
In Pennsylvania, for example, that means requiring all voters to present very limited types of ID only available from the state's department of transportation. Since many inner-city voters don't drive, or many young voters have out-of-state driver's licenses, these likely Obama voters will all be stopped dead in their tracks before they reach the polling booth.
It would seem quite reasonable that, if a state government requires valid voters to present ID in order to vote, they should make obtaining such ID practically free and as easy as possible. There's going to be no quick way around having to produce a valid birth certification, certificate of naturalisation or similar legal document, though - this is the whole point of voter ID, to have a reliable indicator of a person's appropriate legal status and hence right to vote.

A breath of sanity from VoiceOfWisconsin in the comments:

...the National Conference of State Legislatures says
Identification must satisfy the following:
  • Shows the name of the individual, which must substantially conform to the individual's name on the precinct register
  • Show a photograph of the individual to whom it was issued
  • Be issued by the U.S. government, Commonwealth of PA, a municipality of the Commonwealth to an employee of the municipality, an accredited PA private or public institution of higher learning or a PA care facility
  • Include an expiration date and not be expired (exception for a military ID with an indication that it has an indefinite expiration date or a PA driver's license or non-driver ID card that is not more than 12 months past the expiration date)
This doesn't sound unreasonably restrictive. The most common case cited by those against voter ID laws is that of poor people who can't afford a car and hence have no driving licence (and passports are much rarer in the USA than here). But the DMV offices issue appropriate state ID to non-drivers; even if the nearest DMV is a long way away, the above list gives plenty of alternatives. VoiceOfWisconsin also notes that even without ID you can vote provisionally, as long as you subsequently (within 6 days of voting) appear with a suitable proof of ID.

Mr. Slater also appears to be omitting some relevant stats in his argument as commentator Doyouknowwhat remarks:

"Yet, the purge goes on: the Miami Herald found that 58% of the people in a sample of 2,700 "ineligible" voters were Hispanic, and 14% were black"
I looked at the Miami City demographic, Population: 362,470
Hispanic or Latino(of any race): 238,351 or 65.76%
Black or African American: 80,858 or 22.31%
White alone: 42,897 or 11.83%
So in the process of the purging of the rolls it is clear that Hispanic and African American voters are underrepresented.
The stats look a little out of date, but the 2010 figures for Miami-Dade county indicate the proportions are still the same. That by itself is enough to convince me that Slater is a mendacious weasel and is not to be trusted further than one can throw him.

To be clear, I am 100% sure that the Republican politicians pushing voter ID rules view the disproportionate impact on the Democratic voting base as a feature, not a bug. However plenty of democratic countries in good standing have a similar or even stricter voter ID requirement, so it's not prima facie a wrong-headed plan. The key will be to show that every effort is being made to help the poor get their voter ID as long as they actually have the right to vote.

Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs

While passing through an airport recently I picked up a copy of Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs: Waste and Blundering in the Military and have been enjoying it immensely. It caught my eye since I was familiar with the author, Lewis Page who writes for The Register on various matters military. Lewis, an ex-bomb disposal specialist, is not a gentleman shy of sharing his opinions and so I thought I'd give his book a shot.

If I were to sum up Lewis's top five hates as portrayed in the book, in descending order, they would have to be:

  1. The UK Ministry of Defence bureaucracy;
  2. BAE Systems, prime financial beneficiary of that bureaucracy;
  3. The Navy's choice of ships;
  4. Senior brass (brigadier level and up) in the Armed Services;
  5. The RAF's choice of planes.
The thesis that runs through the book is that BAE can't find its arse with its elbow, can't design a weapon system that a) works or b) addresses an actual need, and yet gets truckloads of cash shovelled in its direction in order to maintain a "domestic aircraft/ship/missile building ability". Looking at its track record with Nimrod MRA.4 where they redesigned a perfectly good aircraft with wings that couldn't lift it, and Tornado ADV where they turned a very good low-level fighter-bomber into an expensive inadequate air-to-air missile platform, that contention seems hard to deny.

A lot of what Lewis says makes good sense, even if you don't always agree with him. I disagree with his position on artillery and shore bombardment; he thinks that close air support is almost always the way to go compared to artillery because it's an easier logistical problem to get bombs to airfields rather than shells towards the front line, and because aircraft can strike deeper into enemy territory. However, the Israeli army was light on field artillery in 1973 because of that thinking and the Israeli air force who were supposed to be dropping the bombs hit an unexpected SAM barrier; aircraft are generally more vulnerable than mobile artillery.

Lewis contends that we'd be much better off dropping a lot of our domestic military production and buying off the shelf from the Americans; even when we do buy foreign, we insist on doing things ourselves and screwing it up. As an example he cites the UK Apache procurement where we actually went with an American design but insisted on building it ourselves (and changing the engines while we were at it). It was certainly an expensive way of keeping British jobs - by his calculations we could have given £1 million to each worker whose job was saved, bought Apaches off the shelf and still come out way ahead financially. The Chinook Mk.3 procurement fiasco is also mentioned; and, as Lewis points out, not a single person has lost their job because of it.

We clearly have way too many military top brass in the UK, compared to the actual fighting personnel that they command. Some form of cull seems way overdue. I'd go further than Lewis and insist that we evacuate MoD Abbey Wood from where military procurement is "run", bomb it to the ground and fire every single employee there, then restart from scratch.


Time to short Rovio?

Angry Birds (yes, I know, I know) has just updated on my Android phone. Suddenly there are all these persistent icons, annoying as heck, trying to persuade me to part with cash for power-ups / instant level "solving". This follows a week of annoyingly repeated adverts extolling the virtues of owning a plush Angry Bird.

Looks to me as if Rovio is under pressure from the shareholders to "monetise the free users" in order to bring in income. Internet hype having proved less desirable than cold hard cash, my advice (do your own diligence) is to cash out now before Rovio's financial deficiencies become more obvious.


You can't buck the (housing) market

An instructive tail of wishful homeowner thinking in the Daily Mail:

Gilly Vines, 36, and her husband Richard planned to sell their two-bedroom flat in Exmouth, Devon, now they have two young children, and buy a house with a garden. But the flat wouldn't shift, so Mrs Vines applied for a let-to-buy mortgage, which allows homeowners to borrow for a new home while renting out their old property. Yet the valuation on their flat was £10,000 less than expected
(my emphasis). Umm, well, that doesn't seem terribly inconsistent. Flat is overpriced - flat won't sell. Flat is overpriced - flat valuation is less than asking price. One is led to the inexorable conclusion that their flat isn't worth as much as they thought.

Those readers with memories that reach past 2008 might enjoy the following complaint:

Halifax, Bank of Ireland, the Co-operative and Yorkshire and Clydesdale banks have all lifted their SVRs this year to between 3.99 and 4.95 pc. West Bromwich Building Society charges 5.84 pc — nearly 12 times the Bank of England base rate.
Oh noes! 5.84% interest! Whatever shall we do? I know, let's look at the 2007 typical variable mortgage rate, shall we? That looks like a solid 7.5% to me.

I'm not sure I'd go so far as the esteemed Mr. Wadsworth in claiming that the entire UK economy is being run for the benefit of homeowners, but it really does appear that the Daily Mail is trying to defend the home-owning indefensible here.

What's better than a white elephant?

A Golden Elephant! (number 38)

The Chinese investment vehicle known as "Golden Elephant No. 38" promises buyers a 7.2 percent return per year. That's more than double the rate offered on savings accounts nationally.
Absent from the product's prospectus is any indication of the asset underpinning Golden Elephant: a near-empty housing project in the rural town of Taihe, at the end of a dirt path amid rice fields in one of China's poorest provinces.
The Reuters report linked is a terrifying dive into the murky depths of the Chinese shadow investment economy, where the dreadful returns available from the regular banking system have resulted in all manner of high-risk high-alleged-return products springing up for the Chinese middle class to invest in.

This has been going on long enough that some of the problems are beginning to manifest:

China Credit Trust Co, one of the country's biggest trust companies, has disclosed that one of its wealth funds, Jinkai #1, is at risk of default because of money it lent to coal company Zhenfu energy Group. Zhenfu's boss has been arrested, amid reports he owed a total of 500 million yuan.
At least there are very real consequences for large-scale financial fraud in China, involving a brick wall, a wooden post, a blindfold and a last cigarette (perhaps the FSA might like to investigate this approach, though presumably the cigarette might be a problem in today's Prohibitionist society.) However, first the fraudster has to be caught and blamed, and presumably the smarter fraudsters are busy paying off the police and local Party officials to ensure that they waltz away and leave a suitable underling in the firing line.

The really terrifying bit is the short duration of the financing involved. When many products have maturities measured in months, once consumer confidence starts to shake the wheels are going to come off with uncomfortable speed:

"One of the key problems is that short-term financing is being used to pay for a long-term project," said May Yan, head of China bank research at Barclays in Hong Kong. "Infrastructure projects should be funded by long-term bonds. Unfortunately, China doesn't have that."
One of the reasons the UK hasn't suffered more in the current crisis than it might have done is that much of its debt was in relatively long-term (10+ year) bonds, allowing a lot of time to reorganise finances and austerise itself out of any hole in which it found itself. Chinese banks and state entities are spinning round and round, faster and faster, in an ever-tightening finance circle. When they reach the limit of what's possible, the resulting explosion is going to be ugly - and it's going to felt everywhere around the world where the Chinese are buying or investing.

Fortunately, we are assured there's no actual problem.

"On paper, these are not principal guaranteed but you don't have to worry about that," said a wealth manager at a local branch of Bank of Communications, China's No. 5 lender. "All our clients who've previously bought these products got their principal plus interest back."
Why am I thinking of Lloyds Names here? What could possibly go wrong?

[ Hat tip: The Streetwise Professor.]

Taking your job title too seriously

What would you expect Lloyds bank's Head of Fraud to do?

Jessica Harper abused her position at Lloyds Banking Group over a four-year period between 2007 and 2011.
The former head of fraud and security for online digital banking submitted false invoices to claim £2,463,750.88 before laundering part of the proceeds buying property for her family.
Oopsie. Bit of a black mark for whoever promoted her, then.

Strangely, the article is silent on any consequences for Lloyds management letting this lady roll in the trough for four years.

Sue Patten, head of the Crown Prosecution Service, Central Fraud Division, said: 'Jessica Harper has today been convicted of the type of crime the bank employed her to combat.
'The evidence in the case was clear and left Harper with little choice but to plead guilty. In doing so, she has admitted to a huge breach of trust against her former employer.
Wonder if Lloyds has ever heard of "Trust, but verify"?


Thirty years of The Hoff

A heart-warming interview in The Grauniad yesterday with star of 80's TV and the Spongebob Squarepants movie, David Hasselhoff:

For those of us who grew up on Knight Rider, Hasselhoff, 60, is and for ever will be the man with the backlit bouffant, leading us each Saturday night on a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist.

The Hoff is 60? I can't believe it. We should skip lightly over the sun, sea, sand and suboptimal CPR of Baywatch (and pretend that "Baywatch Nights" never existed) but Hasselhoff's undoubted TV talent underpinned the success of Knight Rider, and he only occasionally got upstaged by his talking car.

Hoff has a very grown-up view of censorship, evidenced by his agent trying to talk him out of doing a number from The Producers:

I said, what the fuck are you talking about? This is from The Producers, one of the greatest musicals. We're mocking him. It's not a tribute to Hitler, it's a gay Hitler.
He also has a mature view of his fame, and the nature of 80's comebacks:
"... We went to [a Hasselhoff disco] in Hertfordshire and there were 1,200 people dressed up as me. They told me they loved me. And at first I thought, these guys are making fun of me. But they're not. They're really not." He says quietly. "They think it's retro and cool."
It's encouraging to see that someone who was not long ago headed for the rocks of the post-success career slide and alcohol has managed to turn it around - and in no small part because he has a sense of proportion about what he has achieved, and what it means to people today for both good and bad.

Theft and its consequences for poverty

The Christian Science Monitor writes on the recent India nationwide power blackouts and how they are likely the result of widespread power theft:

Theft of electricity is so pervasive in India that 15 to 30 percent of power is lost to illegal hookups, bill fraud, or nonpayment.
Ouch! That's well over 10x the estimated fraction of theft in the USA or UK; and because that stolen power is free, there's no price-limiting of behaviour in e.g. a heatwave where paying customers may be sparing in turning on the air conditioning because it costs them a lot. Pirating customers have no such restriction and can crank their air conditioners up to 11 without fear of consequence - other than total loss of electricity when the blackout hits...

This is a perfect example of a situation where a poor country is being kept poor:

The World Bank estimates that stealing from the grid reduces India's gross domestic product by 1.5 percent. Worst of all, few investors want to put money into building new power utilities with so many juice pirates. That leaves India with little hope of lifting its poor by expanding access to electricity.
The "moochers" so beloved by Ayn Rand are having a field day here; they actually do face consequences of their action (the nation remaining relatively under-developed and electricity supply being unreliable) but those costs are so dilute and abstract that they are completely submerged by the benefit of effectively free electricity. But you can understand why poor citizens do this; harder to forgive are the politicos who are involved:
One study in India's most populous state, Andhra Pradesh, discovered that losses in electricity were 3 percent higher during election years. Politicians were winning votes by allowing power theft. And in years when no known criminal was running for office, the utility's revenues rose 5 percent.
I like that "no known criminal" part.

The CS Monitor frames this as a morality and honesty problem, and it does fit the narrative quite well. In the end, though, it is in practice a problem for the government to solve - people aren't going to stop stealing power as long as stealing it is easy and there are no immediate consequences for the theft. Perhaps India can hold off building nukes and sending rockets into space, and instead start installing vaguely secure electricity meters and then increase its power generating capacity and robustness.


LOCOG do not want to sell Olympic tickets

At least, that is the only reasonable conclusion from the news that Ticketmaster blocks polling of the Olympics ticketing site:

[Adam Naisbitt] shared ticket information via Twitter and helped hundreds buy tickets to watch the games.
A London 2012 spokesman said its ticket agent blocked all computerised polling of the site to foil touts.
So Ticketmaster does not want people to discover what people are willing to pay for Olympics tickets (thereby maximising revenue for Locog, assuming they are on a high percentage?)

All that touts are doing is buying from primary ticket owners and reselling closer to the event time to those willing to pay more as they become more certain of their ability to attend the event. The current situation means that anyone who can't plan far ahead (e.g. because they need to arrange transport to London) cannot practically travel to London in anticipation of buying a ticket, because there's a very high chance that they cannot obtain tickets at literally any price.

If LOCOG had any balls (and a reasonably well-functioning ticketing system) they would tell Ticketmaster to take a hike and run an active secondary market in tickets, buying back tickets at (purchase price - X%, with X between 50 and 90 depending on event and time of return) and reselling them. That they are not doing this indicates to me that they don't give a crap about making a decent return on investment, preferring instead to chase some chimera of "equality of access". My arse. If you want equality of access, run a lottery and tell the House of Commons up-front that you're giving away a billion or two in potential revenue in return for "equality". And don't cry about the un-filled seats that result.

Not really intent on winning the argument

The next stage in the Great Chicken War of 2012 is planned to be a nation-wide gay kiss-in at Chick-fil-A restaurants. FFS.

The furore to date has landed Chick-fil-A with its biggest sales day ever as people lined up around the block to show support for the chain:

Chick-fil-A said it set a sales record Wednesday, but declined to release the numbers.
"We can confirm reports that it was a record-setting day," said Steve Robinson, the executive vice president of marketing.
So own goal number 1 for the Chick-fil-A opponents. Now some of them are planning for National Same Sex Kiss Day at Chick Fil A (which, if I read that event right, looks to be 8pm East Coast time today). How exactly do they expect this to turn out?

Given that Chick-fil-A is a franchise operation, it'll be up to each store's manager to determine what happens if public same-sex kissing starts. I foresee three possibilities:

  1. No-one notices or really cares.
  2. Kissing couples politely and/or firmly asked to leave (which the manager is entitled to do - their gaff, their rules).
  3. Kissing couples told that if they want to stay and kiss then they have to buy at least a bargain bucket.
Presumably the kissers are hoping for 2. otherwise there's little point doing it. The smartest thing the managers could do would therefore be 1. or 3. Just a thought.

One of the less tasteful but amusing tweets on the subject from Iowahawk: hot chick-on-chick-on-chicken action ... Lesbians making out *and* chicken sandwiches? Is this heaven? with Blaise Miller following up acerbically: "Kissing in a restaurant in support of marriage rights? Married couples don't kiss in restaurants."