Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Speed limiters

The BBC tells us people are calling for speed limiting cars, to help with safety and to cut down on emissions. I am at odds with Safe Speed on a lot of its policies. For instance, I have a revolutionary answer to the problem of getting caught by speed cameras: drive within the limit. But on the issue of speed limiters I agree with them - stupid idea, really stupid idea, even on a voluntary basis. For far too long we have allowed ourselves to indulge in a culture which encourages drivers to believe that they ought to be able to do anything they want if they can get away with it. Viz the campaign to emasculate speed cameras. It's time that stopped. It's time we began to use all the means of social pressure available to get everybody to drive safely and sensibly. The root of the problem, I think, is that we learn very quickly that we can just get into a car and then not pay any attention to anything. Driving takes care and attention; most of the time we give it neither. Maybe everybody should be required to take the IAM's advanced driving test. It revolutionised the way I drive when I took it, and I'm sure it would do the same for many, many people. The beginning of the IAM's document is significant; "Recognising that the majority of collisions are caused by driver error...". Speed limiters simply enable drivers to *feel* safe without actually changing their behaviour. And the problem there is that it's not just salesmen and teenagers. The fact is that people within every demographic grouping kill and maim people by driving too fast and by making mistakes. And then claiming there was nothing they could do about it. It's everybody's responsibility, even if they're not driving, because it's a cultural issue and we need to change the culture so that drivers who break the law experience our disapproval instead of our sympathy.

Picture this scenario. A new year's party in a comfortable Sussex village, to name no names. A bunch of very respectable people - doctors, maybe, lawyers, businessmen and women, accountants, farmers, engineers, lecturers,shop owners. Somebody says to somebody else, "How's the new BMW?" The answer is, "Absolutely brilliant. I was on the bypass yesterday and I was doing ninety before I realised it". Now nobody at the that party is going to say, "Well, you were a bloody fool, then, weren't you". It's just not done. But it's time we started doing it as well as altering our own behaviour.

(I know what the reaction to the BMW driver being called a fool is going to be - it wasn't his fault, it happened too quickly. Well, it was his fault. He's just bought a powerful new car. He knows it's powerful, that's why he bought it. So when he gets into it, he should take care to look at the speedometer regularly, and when he's familiarising himself with the car he should accelerate watchfully the first few times to see how it does without breaking the speed limit. I've heard people say - and they seem genuinely to believe it - that they can't keep looking at the speedometer all the time because it takes their attention away from the road. Well, if they can't, we should take the keys away from them now, because if their eyesight and reaction times are that bad, they're a danger to themselves and everyone around them.)

Friday, 21 November 2008

ID cards consultation document

The Identity and Passport Service launches today its consultation on the ID card scheme, which, strangely, is going to cost us more than they told us to start with...

Best reaction soundbite so far: Chris Huhne's "laminated poll tax".

People trafficking and sex

I've only just noticed this courtesy of the excellent Steve Cooke. Jacquie Smith has dreamed up a unique approach to law enforcement. Penalise people who may be doing wrong but don't know it and stop pursuing people who are doing wrong and know they're doing wrong.

The daftness of her ideas on preventing people trafficking by criminalising paying for sex with controlled women - whether or not the payer is aware of the situation - has been exposed in many places. But is it not egregiously daft to do that while effectively closing down the only police unit in the country dedicated to combatting human trafficking? The Independent has the story and I quote:

"The Metropolitan Police's Human Trafficking Team will cease work next year because its budget has been withdrawn following the decision by the Home Office to cut its yearly funding for human trafficking investigations from £4m to £1.7m.

"Politicians and trafficking experts expressed anger at the Home Office's decision, saying it will leave a "gaping hole" in the policing of the crime. Privately, the police themselves are said to be furious about the decision.

"The Met's Human Trafficking Team was set up in March 2007 and was designed to actively target gangs who bring women to the UK as sex slaves and children as forced labourers. It is estimated that more than 4,000 people are currently in the UK as a result of having been trafficked.

"Britain is considered to be the destination of choice for gangs bringing women into the country from eastern Europe, China, Malaysia, Africa and South America to work in brothels.

"It is notoriously difficult to convict criminals for human trafficking, but as the only specialist operational team in the country, the Met's dedicated human trafficking centre had claimed a series of successes.

"News of the closure came as the unit claimed another major success last week which saw six sex traffickers jailed for a combined total of 52 years for deceiving a Slovakian teenager into a life of prostitution."

Should not the left hand have some vague idea what the right hand is doing?

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Gmail for smtp

The technique outlined here comes from Lifehacker: How to use Gmail as your SMTP server. But the instructions are a little outdated as gmail has changed the layout of its settings pages, so I've updated them here.

The issue is that, when you're away from base, you can't always send emails from your email client because you're on the wrong ISP. Some ISPs allow it, some don't. But, if you have a gmail account you can set it up as your SMTP server to use from anywhere. It works in three stages.

First, set your client to use gmail SMTP.
Second, the From field in the emails seen by the recipient will point to gmail, but by changing the settings in gmail you can make it point to your original address.
Third, set gmail to forward the mails it receives to your original.

For the first stage:
1.1 for Thunderbird, go to Tools, Account Settings.
1.2 In the left hand pane scroll down to "Outgoing Server (SMTP)", and click on that.
1.3 In the right hand pane click on Add...
1.4 In the Server Settings window, put a name in the Description - "gmail", for instance. For Server Name put "smtp.gmail.com". Check the "Use name and password" box, and then in the "User Name" box, put your gmail username. It needs to be the whole thing - jsmith@gmail.com. Finally, in the "Use secure connection" line of radio buttons at the bottom, click in the "TLS" button. Click OK.
1.5 Thunderbird should use whichever SMTP it finds working, but to make sure, click on the gmail address, and then click "Set default". Thunderbird will then use the gmail SMTP until you set the default back to your original. But note that replies to emails you send this way will go to gmail.

But you can make it look better, and work better. You can make it say it comes from your original address, and you can set gmail to forward the mails it receives back to your original address.

So, for stage two:
2.1 open your gmail account in your browser
2.2 go to Settings at the top right
2.3 in Settings, go to Accounts on the top tabs
2.4 click "Add Another Email Address"
2.5 enter the address you want in the From field in the Address box; click "Next Step".
2.6 click "Send Verification", and follow the instructions to verify the account (an email will be sent to your account; click the verification link in that email, or enter the code in the confirmation code window.
2.7 back at the Settings page you will now have your Gmail account and your other account listed. The Gmail account will have the word "default" to its right, and the other account will have a link called "make default". Click the "make default" link. This account name will now appear in the "From" field.

To complete the process, have gmail forward your mail to your other account. This is stage three:
3.1 Back in the Settings page in gmail, go to the "Forwarding and POP/IMAP" tab.
3.2 Click the radio button beside "Forward a copy of incoming mail to", and enter your email address in the box that says "email address".
3.3 scroll down to the bottom of the page and click "Save Changes".

You are now good to go.

You don't even need to change it all back again when you get home, but it's neater if you do.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Windows 7: I wish they hadn't said that

According to El Reg, Microsoft has said that Windows 7 will be ready in time for Christmas 2009. Which of course means it will need to be ready a good deal before that. Now, just lately it has appeared that Microsoft had learned some lessons. They have been keeping Windows 7 simple and they have been throwing out any buggy features that might delay the launch. So we might actually get a new Microsoft OS that works the way it's supposed to. Until today: now they've hitched themselves to Christmas 2009, the process will be driven by sales and marketing rather than by technical readiness. So it might still be a turkey, though less of a turkey than Vista.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Spurs fans would like to apologise...

... to all the clubs they are now beating. Man City are the latest victims (though it sounds like they were the architects of their own undoing).

Friday, 7 November 2008

Companies and databases

This is not a rant about companies keeping information on me. Though the amount Tesco think they know about me is quite frightening. This is more about why companies don't use their databases properly.

I've twice had the experience lately of phoning different companies and going through the automated voice thing. Part of the routine is that you have to key in your customer number. So far so good (though very annoying when, after you've done all that, they cut you off picking up the phone and you have to go through the whole routine again). But then I had to give the whole damn' number to the person I was talking to. "Is it not there on your screen?" "No." "Why did I just have to key it all in then?" "Don't know where it goes. But we don't get it." So one bit of the database is not talking to another bit of the database.

And then I recently got one of these coupon things at Tesco for a certain brand of goods. I checked for this item regularly till the coupon ran out of date and then, being in a picky frame of mind, I went to the customer services desk and complained. And they said, "We don't stock that, we never have." The coupons are apparently taken off Tesco's national database of goods without referring to whether or not they're stocked in any particular store. Given that most people most of the time shop in the same store, could the coupon machine not interrogate the store's inventory to see if it was worth giving me that coupon? Of course it could. But it doesn't Missed a trick there, Tesco.

Monday, 27 October 2008

The most daring show on TV

Spooks. It has to be. Apart from the terrific music, the riveting camera work, the authentic feel of tradecraft, they are just so ruthless with their characters. Adam Carter was the life and soul of Spooks. Plenty of strong characters around him but without him it would be different. And now we'll know, because they've killed him off. What other series on any channel, either side of the Atlantic would be so profligate with the characters it has nurtured so carefully? Adam is not the first, and it's a brilliant strategy because it underlines for us the cost paid by the people who do this kind of work. It lends a kind of authenticity to the series that could not be bought any other way.

George Osborne

The BBC headline says "I made a mistake, admits Osborne".

Just the one?

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Thursday, 16 October 2008

As cats get older...

... they seem to get cuter.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Eat Sussex Day

Low Carbon Ringmer is having an Eat Sussex event on the afternoon of Oct 11th. Read more about it here. And check out the smoothie bike; it's brilliant.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

It's all about character

So says Dave. Well, he would wouldn't he, as he doesn't have experience on his side. It was quite a decent response in some ways - now there's a battle on.

But I can't help thinking about character. What do you say about the character of a party leader whose two main funders have broken promises, and clearly intend to continue breaking them, and he can bring himself to do nothing about it?

Lord Ashcroft promised to be a UK tax payer if he became a lord. He is very secretive about his movements and his businesses. He's entitled to be. But when David Cameron makes noises about cleaning up the mess in British politics he needs to ensure that his own party's receipts are squeaky clean. So is Lord Ashcroft a UK taxpayer? Ashcroft recently grudgingly confirmed that he pays tax in the UK, but wasn't specific about how much,or on what basis, when it would have been easy to do so. His behaviour leaves open the assumption that he is still hiding something. And those donations wend their way to the Tory party via a chain of companies, according to Channel 4, ending up with a British based company which donates more to the party than its own turnover. Why the stealth? It invites an assumption that there is something fishy about the origin of the money. But Dave isn't bothered about that in the slightest.

Lord Laidlaw made a written promise in 2003 that he would become a UK taxpayer if he became a Lord. He clearly never intended to keep that promise. Does Dave care? Apparently not. Lord Laidlaw has now apparently taken leave from the House of Lords. But he's still a Lord, and a broken promise continues to lie on his silver salver.

And what about Ian Oakley? He conducted a sustained, vicious, deliberate, premeditated, three year long campaign of hatred, harrassment and intimidation of political opponents while he was the Conservative candidate for Watford. He has admitted to 75 offences committed over that time. And Dave has not uttered one word of condemnation.

Yes. I do wonder about character.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Great news for the Gurkhas

Gurkhas win right to stay in UK, the BBC says. And they quote Nick Clegg: "Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said it was a "wonderful vindication" for those who had campaigned for a change in the law. "I've always felt that if someone is prepared to die for this country, then they should have the right to live in this country," he said.

"The key thing now is to look at the ruling in detail and to make sure that the government now translates that into action and doesn't try and squirm out of it.""

Sunday, 21 September 2008

URGENT: Can you help the Ghurkas’ legal team?

From Anthony Hook:

Gurkha Justice campaigner Lib Dem Peter Carroll has issued an plea for evidence to back up the legal team representing the Gurkhas in the current High Court hearing on the lawfulness of the 1997 ‘cut off’ date for citizenship.

The case received huge coverage earlier this week when Joanna Lumley and others gave their backing to the cause. The Gurkha’s legal team urgently (by Wednesday 24th September) need to find an example case of a soldier recruited directly from a Commonwealth country to disprove statements being made by the Home Office.

Peter Carroll says:

“We need to find a person who joined the British Army between 1962 and 1997 who was a citizen of a Commonwealth Country and joined the Army directly from his own country - that is, they had not entered and settled in the UK before applying to join the Army.

“The reasons behind this requirement are complex. However, our legal team say that the finding of even one such instance would fundamentally improve the chance of victory in this case.”

If you meet the criteria above, or know anyone who does, please email Peter Carroll on pdcarroll@cix.co.uk or call 07866 800755 AS SOON AS POSSIBLE AND BY 24TH SEPTEMBER 2008 AT THE LATEST.

Even if you do not know directly of such people, please email this message to others and ask them to pass it on as well to anyone they think might be able to help, especially army contacts.

The success of the Gurkha’s claim for citizenship rights for those retiring before 1997 would be STRONGLY helped by finding people as above to disprove the Home Office’s case in the next two days: you can make it happen, and help right this wrong.

You can read more about the Gurkha Justice Campaign at www.gurkhajustie.org.uk

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Thunderbird, Lightning and Google calendar

I just got to integrate all three. A bit fiddly but worth doing.

First of all, Lightning adds calendar and task list functions to your email client.

That didn't want to play the first time I tried adding a couple of tasks, but it cleared itself after a couple of restarts of Thunderbird. Apparently this has happened to other people too.

You switch between email client, calendar and tasks by using the icons at the bottom left of the screen.

So I now have lots of tasks up, some repeating, and two calendars, one for me and one for HPI. Setting up a new calendar is dead easy. In Calendar view go to "Calendar" menu item, then "New", then follow the wizard.

Then I wanted to integrate my Google calendar. This doesn't work with the normal calendar wizard, though it does do other networked calendars. For google you need the "Provider for Google Calendar" which I duly downloaded and installed. But it wouldn't work.

After quite a bit of fiddling about on the forums etc, I deduced that the Provider (version 0.4) was built to work with Lightning 0.8, and I was on Lightning 0.9. I tried downloading and installing the 0.8 version of Lightning, but it wouldn't let me because it knew it already had a different version installed. And it was still obstinate when I uninstalled Lightning 0.9. I guessed that was because it was keeping the data stored somewhere, even after the uninstall, and didn't want to overwrite it. I considered deleting the data, but then decided to try a nightly build on the Provider. I didn't try this before because I'm not a debugger. (Just a bugger, some say.)

Anyway I went off to find the nightly build of Provider here, uninstalled it, installed the new one, and lo and behold it worked. Google Calendar appeared as an option in my New Calendar wizard which-version-do-you-want-page.

There were still a couple of trickinesses to work out, but I was greatly helped by this tutorial at bfish. Note that the tutorial itself is based on old versions. In particular, you don't find "Manage" on Google calendar - it's "Settings".

I found quite a lot of other bits and pieces while I was tracking this down. Not least the developer of Provider says that Google are developing CalDAV for their calendar, a standard that Lightning supports, so Provider may not be needed long term. But he's still supporting it.

And OpenOffice are developing a Personal Information Manager around Lightning.

I'm off to play with Lightning again. At some point I expect the integration of Lightning and Provider to fall over again because the builds won't match, But till then, I'm very happy.

Update 22nd Sept:
Doing this on Tbird in the office today, I found I needed the nightly build of Lightning to work with the nightly build of Provider. Seems like you have to pick your builds.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Talk Like A Pirate

Well me e-hearties, it's International Talk Like A Pirate Day today. Shiver me timbers and splice the mainbrace, it's lucky I'm not at work today. Ah haaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. That feels better.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Blow me down with a feather

Simon Heffer thinks Nick Clegg is competent. I had to pinch myself. I had to check the date - no, not April 1st. Simon Heffer thinks Nick Clegg is "the only prominent politician even heading towards the right set of economic values" to deal with the financial crisis we're facing. Wow.

On certainty, politeness and science

I watched the editor of Debretts on TV this morning arguing that political correctness has meant the end of politeness. I forebore from using the various expletives that came to my mind, but I do think he is talking rot.

What he is talking about, of course, is the fact that men no longer lift their hats to women, open doors for them, or offer them their seats on trains. And there was the predictable woman interviewee who is very disappointed that that no longer happens, because she doesn't feel the slightest bit belittled when it does. And the man who doesn't do it, because he has no idea if he's going to offend the woman by doing so. So far so good. But to say that that is the end of politeness is, to put it in a Boris way, piffle. The whole purpose of politeness is to make other people feel comfortable. It involves actually thinking about other people, paying attention to them. Not a knee jerk reaction that, as soon as I see a woman, I get to my feet, whether she wants me to or not.

Politeness as such grew in the days when strangers (usually men) began to mingle in public and it was a way of enabling people who hadn't been introduced to get on with each other. The hat lifting form of politeness was the gift wrapping around the carefully unacknowledged fact that men had a lot more power than women. Men do, unfortunately, still have more power than women, but not so much as they used to, and that fact grates on some people and causes uncertainty in others. And when people are made to feel uncertain, they get resentful. I find that after going through a period of uncertainty, and therefore inaction, myself, I now open doors and offer seats when I think people need it. I do so for men and women, the young and the old. I still remember when I was working as a receptionist dealing with a child at the desk, and a woman walked up behind the child and started speaking at me straight over the child's head. Yes, I am going to stereotype, but she looked like the kind of woman who would have been livid if a child had done that to her. Politeness should work for everybody, and I try and make sure it does.

I can appreciate that many people feel the difficulty of being uncertain about it. All I can do is suggest they work on it.

I think the same issue about uncertainty is at the root of the popularity of creationism. It is, frankly, in my opinion a recipe made by idiots but welcome to a large number of people precisely because it offers certainty in an apparently increasingly uncertain world. Certainty becomes more attractive than truth, particularly when truth is so complicated. I also think that its popularity is due to it not having been taken on properly by the scientific establishment. We have to find ways of presenting the truth more photogenically. It's not easy to tell the truth about the way the universe was made in a couple of short snappy sentences. It is easy to give the story told by creationism in a couple of short snappy sentences and people delight in doing it, to the detriment of the intelligence of their listeners in the end.

There is also the issue, I think, that science has become frightened of taking creationism on. Lots of people avoid criticising Islam today for fear, not so much of giving offence, as of the furore that will ensue. Today's reports of Sadiq Khan's remarks and the robust responses to him on both sides of the argument are typical of the kind of dust up that people don't want to get into. Similarly, I can imagine that a lot of science teachers don't want to have to deal with regular rants from committed creationist parents if they put a foot "wrong" in a biology lesson.

But there comes a time when you have to start standing up for what you believe in. Science teachers do need to refer to creationism, rather than completely avoiding it. They don't need to "teach" it, but they do need to tackle it in order to point out the difference between the way science works and the way creationism works. And I don't believe the Royal Society should have sacked Professor Reiss just for saying so (though exactly what he said is not easy to ascertain).

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Newspapers and the crunch

We are in the middle of a great difficulty - the credit crunch which has accounted so far for one bank, and may well account for more. But I wonder how much media coverage tells the story right, and how much it exaggerates what is going on. If you read or listen long enough, most commentators get round to saying it's going to be manageable. But the language routinely used does make it seem almost apocalyptic. According to the newspaper you read, share prices have crashed, tumbled, collapsed, or plunged..... by 4%. That means if you had £1,000,000 in shares yesterday, you have £960,000 today. Not yet reason to stop mixing the martinis.

And apparently the credit crunch means "more bad news" (almost uniformly regardless of which paper you read) for house prices. Forgive me, but I believe it's actually good news for house prices. A lot of owners are losing a very small proportion of the value of their house, but this is a correction that is long overdue and which will in the end result in a housing market that is more affordable for everybody.

I note that Indie readers at least still have their priorities right. The four most viewed articles in descending order are:
- the ten best seduction techniques
- the 50 best cookbooks
- the ten best romantic wedding locations
- and only in fourth place - Canary Wharf turned into a cardboard city as thousands clear their desks

Best cartoon of the day so far is in the Independent. The caption is "Damien Hirst's Lehmann banker". You have to imagine the picture (but surely you can) as it doesn't seem to be available online. If you can't imagine it, this will give you a clue.

Monday, 15 September 2008

If somebody is prepared to die for our country...

"... then they should be able to live in our country" (Nick Clegg). I was very glad to see today that the Gurkha campaign for justice has been given time and space at the LibDem conference, as part of a week of activities marking the beginning of a judicial review into the situation faced by Gurkhas who have fought on our behalf.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

The universe still exists!!!

Though philosophically of course we could all be features of each other's imaginations.

And good luck to everybody at CERN and the LHC.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Ringmer Triathlon

A quick salute to a couple of people who are a lot fitter than I am.

This was at the end of the Ringmer Triathlon, and the weather was fairly filthy - it was after all a Bank Holiday Monday. There were a lot of people around pushing their bikes and walking very, very slowly.

I'm not entirely sure what the pirate gear was for; perhaps they're practising for International Talk Like A Pirate Day.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Am I frightened? No. I'm terrified.

Now it's officially called IMP. That no longer stands for Interface Message Processor, which has an honourable place in the history of the internet, but for Interception Modernisation Programme, which I fear will not. Or, as per El Reg, the überdatabase. I refer to the plan to start keeping all of our electronic communications in one giant shoebox. It will be big, that is not in question; in fact it will be enormous. And, of course, we're not allowed to know how enormous because the government can use both of its favourite excuses - commercial sensitivity AND security implications. Must have been a red letter day for the civil servant who realised that one. From the House of Lords (look about two thirds of the way down, or do a search on "Northesk"):

"The interception modernisation programme (IMP) will require a substantial level of investment which will need to tie in with the Government's three-year CSR periods. The scale of overall economic investment is very difficult to calculate because of the complexity of the project and wide ranging implementation solutions currently being considered.

"Given this complexity and the commercial and national security sensitivities, the precise costs of the programme cannot be disclosed. Further detail on budgetary estimates for the IMP will, however, become available once the draft Communications Data Bill is published."

The government excuse is that in the days of complex communications and increased threat we need to keep up our capability. Others argue that we're not just keeping up, we're opening up unparalleled opportunities for snooping. That includes the Information Commissioner's Office, from whom I quote:

"If the intention is to bring all mobile and internet records together under one system, this would give us serious concerns and may well be a step too far. We are not aware of any justification for the state to hold every UK citizen’s phone and internet records. We have real doubts that such a measure can be justified, or is proportionate or desirable. Such a measure would require wider public discussion. Proper safeguards would be needed to ensure that the data is only used for the proper purpose of detecting crime.

"We have warned before that we are sleepwalking into a surveillance society. Holding large collections of data is always risky; the more data that is collected and stored, the bigger the problem when the data is lost, traded or stolen. Defeating crime and terrorism is of the utmost importance, but we are not aware of any pressing need to justify the government itself holding this sort of data. If there is a problem with the current arrangements, we stand ready to advise on how they can be improved, rather than creating an additional system to house all records."

What terrifies me is the meeting together in one place of four of the worst features of government, particularly the current lot:

- their almost unparalleled capacity to cock up large scale IT projects
- their winning way with data security
- the inevitability of mission creep where data held by government is concerned
- the inevitability of mission creep, both lawful and unlawful, where snooping powers are concerned.

I will not be sleeping more soundly in my bed as a result of this.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Dawkins on Darwin

I watched Dawkins on Darwin tonight, and found myself wondering if fundamentalist minds seek out other fundamentalist minds. He really hates Christian fundamentalists, but he can't seem to stop himself scratching the itch. While I agree with his analysis of what the idiocies of creationism do to the world we see around us, he seems to be unable (or perhaps unwilling) to understand how the minds work of people who believe it. In the end he seemed to me to make a statement of faith in science that was as emotionally based and as irrational as the people he combats. He couldn't persuade so he ended up asserting.

But for me the most disturbing part of the programme was when he interviewed some non-creationist science teachers. He did a field trip with some of their secondary school pupils and was astonished at how little they knew of evolution. So he talked to their teachers about it. The teachers said they had a number of children (they didn't say what proportion) who'd been brought up to believe the creationist explanation, and it was difficult to teach them something different. So far so good. But then they seemed to abrogate their responsibility - they said it was not their job to disturb the children's religious beliefs, and so they would lay out the scientific arguments but not try to persuade the children to believe them.

I feel though that it's not just about beliefs but also about how to think. Christians can think. I know that, I am one. To my mind science teachers have a duty to show how to react in a scientific way to the world around. Start with what you see. Build up a hypothesis to explain what you see. Test it. Find it wanting. Modify it. Test it again. And so on. You don't necessarily need to confront creationism, but you can point out to children how a scientific view of the world is built up. One of the most insidious lies of creationism is that it deserves equal air time with evolution because evolution is "just a hypothesis" and creationism is a hypothesis on the same footing. Those who argue that couldn't be more fundamentally, totally and idiotically wrong. Science starts with what we see around us, and builds hypotheses to fit. Creationism starts with an idea and bends the world to fit it. Its method is diametrically opposed to science, and children brought up to believe it need to be told that.

I think in fact that those science teachers were probably not being entirely honest. I think that they likely (and quite understandably) took an easy option, and didn't confront creationism for fear of having a load of stroppy fundamentalist parents making trouble in their classrooms and at school meetings. I don't blame them for that, but I'm sad if it's so. One of the difficulties of being moderate (like me) is that we often don't fight hard enough for our beliefs.

Monday, 4 August 2008

The Dark Knight - possible spoiler alert

Just went to see The Dark Knight. I've never been a great fan of Batman films, but this one had me hooked. Lots of great moments, and a wonderful rumbly sound track. It was darker than those I've seen before - not sure how many or even which I've seen.

***possible spoilers below***

Heath Ledger - magnetic.

Christian Bale - got a bit fed up with him growling, especially when Aaron Eckhart started doing it too.

Aaron Eckhart - yes, OK. Didn't convince when turning bad/slightly insane. Neither did his make up, when it became relevant. It just looked like a parody of itself.

Maggie Ghyllenhaal - OK.

Michael Caine - very good, in an understated Caine-ish sort of way.

Curious but clearly thought through way of dealing with violence - lots of thumping, lots of shooting, lots of blowing up, but they only very, very rarely showed the results. I guess that's what kept its rating at 12a.

Lurking in there somewhere was a theme about whether you can become evil in order to combat evil, which Christopher Nolan kept in the frame enough to make a narrative out of a series of spectacular stunts. And in which he did a very professional job.

My rating - somewhere between 3 and 4 stars. A decent afternoon's entertainment.

KP and the Cantona conundrum

KP still offers no apology for making stupid strokes. "That's the way I play", he says, and much opinion repeats that and says you have to take the bad with the good, that's what he is, and he's never going to change. I say that's rubbish.

They used to say exactly the same thing about Eric Cantona. "He's a genius; and that means you have to accept the bad boy antics, because that's all wrapped up with him being a genius. You can't have one without the other."

But Eric proved them wrong. After his attack on the Crystal Palace fan, he was sentenced to community service and was banned from playing for several months. When he eventually came back, he was just as much a playing genius as he had ever been, but the bad boy antics had disappeared. People can learn, even people as apparently hot headed as Eric Cantona.

(The case of Joey Barton is an interesting one too - related though not the same thing. Kevin Keegan has has his fair share of critics for allowing Barton back into the fold. I don't know if Barton has reformed or not - I guess we'll find out this season. But I didn't see any of Kevin's critics taking that into account when they attacked him. Apparently people don't deserve a chance when they come out of prison. But that's a different issue.)

So, as I said, people can learn. And I hope KP starts to realise that he too can learn. He wants to dominate the opposition bowlers. Fine. But he can learn that there are many, many ways of dominating, and he will only be a great player, as opposed to a greatly talented one, when he starts to choose the right way to dominate in *these* circumstances at *this* time, rather than just trying to blast them out of their socks at every opportunity. I hope he does learn - he'll be a much better player for it.

So it's KP

So it's Kevin Pietersen to captain England. Not the first South African we've had captain England. I hope he succeeds but I fear he won't. I have decided that if he does, I will eat my hat, and it will be a joyful duty to undertake.

However, if I am to take this commitment seriously, I must have some criteria to decide on whether he has in fact been successful. Two years seems a good time for an assessment, so I have until this time 2010 - or, just to get in a full season,let's say the end of September 2010.

But what constitutes success? Is it just in terms of winning tests? Should it be winning more than he loses? We would have to include one dayers as well, so what is the criterion there? Should I include among the criteria his own form - must he keep up his averagae of 50 in tests and 47 in ODIs?

I'd be grateful for help from my readers on this, so suggestions are welcome from anyone, and especially from James Schneider, and Jonny Wright.

Pietersen, Collingwood and morality

James Schneider has a piece over at Schneiderhome on the difference in how we have reacted to Pietersen and Collingwood on 94. I was writing a comment, but it got so long that I turned it into a blog instead.

The lesson James draws is to do with our reactions to agency and guilt, or, I would say, responsibility, and the role chance plays - the difference between a hero and a fool is often just a couple of inches. But I think the example chosen doesn't do the job. Pietersen and Collingwood each, on 94, tried to reach 100 with a six. Pietersen failed, Collingwood succeeded. James says they were the same shot. But they weren't, nor was the context the same. Pietersen's was a showboating shot, a completely unnecessary risk, a sweep across the line of the ball. Collingwood's was a straight drive. In that over he blocked two or three balls that were of dangerous length. He blocked, he waited, he blocked, he waited. When one dropped short, and was asking to be hit, he went and hit it. It is the difference between a rush of blood to the head and a calculated risk.

And remember this is in the context of a man who says (Pietersen) "That's the way I play". In other words he is unwilling to change it or incapable of changing it, or both. That is not the attitude of a professional who, with his talent, ought to be able to drop anchor and play through two, three or four sessions when necessary without losing his head, even if it's not his natural game. The contrast with what Graeme Smith has done in these three tests is colossal.

And that is at least part of the explanation of why Pietersen is being treated differently from Collingwood. He sold his wicket cheaply, even if he had scored 94 runs before it. He put himself in that position. Chance does have a role to play, but so does a responsible attitude.

And that's why I'm hoping England don't appoint Pietersen captain. Nassser Hussain says he's a leader of men, and I am willing to take NH's word for it. But there is still a measure of immaturity in him that he needs to take in hand before he can be a true captain.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Tories, social gulfs, hmmm

The BBC says today “Tories tackle 'huge social gulf'”. Leaving aside the fact that the BBC's headline isn't telling the truth - another of those headlines that don't reflect what the piece actually says – the Tories are not tackling the gulf, they're only talking about it. And I doubt very much that they'll do anything significant once in power

This is a deliberate rewriting of history – they're talking about urban issues, and they're talking about fixing the society that they say Labour broke. But if you have any memory that goes back into the 80s, you know that the Conservatives played their own very significant part in the breakdown of cities then, from which Labour have failed to help them recover. So, if they actually did anything about it once they got into power they would in fact be fixing their own mess. And they were not in the slightest bit interested in it at the time. I can remember the virulence of their response when Faith In The City came out in 1985. I doubt very much that they will actually do anything – far too many of their current and putative future MPs idolise Mrs T far too much to bring in the kind of policies that will make a difference.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

We're going to get a wind turbine!!

Hazel Blears has made a good decision. Yes, I know, I had to go and lie down in a darkened room for some time, and I'm now only just strong enough to blog about it.

The hill that provides the background to the title of this blog will sooner, rather than later, I hope, have a wind turbine on it.

And this, according to an artist's impression, is what it will look like:

Image borrowed from Glyndebourne (pdf).

There's more about it here.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Fun with a chair

We recently acquired two chairs made by a cross eyed Sri Lankan odd job man about a hundred years ago. I kid you not - one of my ancestors by marriage was in the colonial service. Anyway, one of them fell apart this morning when my son sat on it, so I spent the morning putting it back together again. As it's an heirloom its emotional value is immense. Its practical value is probably negative; I'd have been better off going to Ikea (yes, I said Ikea) and getting a flatpack replacement.

Anyway in the course of trying to get it to work, i.e. to support some weight, I realised that the said cross eyed Sri Lankan odd job man had a capacity for making things eerily similar to mine, although he was probably more ingenious. Following that logic I started working on the assumption that nothing that was intended to fit did actually fit. This worked quite well, especially when I realised that there were two currents of idiosyncratic DIY going on because the chair had at various points in its life been lovingly "repaired" by other people with the same level of skill as me. Woodwork was one of the subjects I failed at school.

Anyway, I did pretty well with this chair. I managed to figure out how to get the sides and the front to speak to each other again, and then to marry as if they were one.

But I hadn't followed my own logic through well enough....

When the frame fitted together, the seat didn't fit the frame.

I hammered it into place. Sometimes ingenuity just has to give way to a good bashing.

Sunday, 20 July 2008


This is me enjoying the Digilab at the Open University.

And this is the monitor for the demo computer at the Digilab.

Unfortunately the last user at the Digilab disconnected it and the tech support could not for the life of them figure out how to reconnect it. There were an awful lot of wires behind it.

So much to the pleasure of my audience I gave an old fashioned face to face tutorial with no visual aids for half an hour. It seemed to go well.

I don't know my own strength

I was nearly up to punch number 5000 today when the hook holding the punchbag broke :-(

Pope backs Archbishop

"Pope rides to Rowan's rescue". So says the Independent. I'm sure they're right. I'm also sure that his main reason for saying "he does not support the defection of conservative Anglicans to the Roman Catholic Church" is that he doesn't want to have that bunch of trouble makers in his church.

So he seems quite a sensible guy actually.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Oh, the irony

Paul Walter got there before me, but, in the light of the Ray Lewis affair, which would never have been an issue if Johnson had had him properly checked out before appointing him, there is a certain irony about Boris Johnson using his overpaid Daily Telegraph column not long before to bemoan the amount of checking that's needed for some jobs. If only his file on Lewis had been "six inches thick". That bit's at the end of the column - and apparently it's the reason why we didn't make the European Championships.

PS the comments beneath the article are further energetic proof of the crazed mentality and strangely stunted world view of many Telegraph readers.

Monday, 30 June 2008

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Henley - late and disjointed

I thought Henley was a score draw. We didn't do as well as we hoped, but we did a lot better than the Tories hoped we would do. Part of the discourse seems to be that we should, whatever the political circumstances, be taking seats off the Tories. I think there are two main issues about this. The first is that many of us still see the Tories as more like our natural enemies than Labour; the assumption is that we have less common ground with the Tories than with Labour. I think that that just makes us complicit with the “middle ground” discourse where Tories are right, Labour are left, and we have a thin sliver of middle ground off which we get squeezed when one of the other parties does well. We shouldn't acquiesce in this discourse because it is crap. Complete unvarnished smelly crap. It suits Labour and the Tories, and it suits the media because a) they can present an easy image that will sell newspapers, without anybody having to think too hard and b) it's a lot easier to hold positions if you have somebody that you're against, and generally speaking there is only room in people's minds for one enemy at a time. Therefore bipolar politics appeals to those who are supposed to interpret our politics to us, as well as to both Tories and Labour.

The second issue is that the Tory vote is no longer soft, far from it. We could only count on the kind of swings we have become familiar with when the Tories were seen as both nasty and incompetent. That combination is unusual and is unlikely to return. David Cameron has done a very good and very disciplined sales job in convincing the electorate at large that the Tories are no longer nasty, and has avoided the issue of competence by having no policies. The fact that the Tories are still in large measure nasty means nothing – it's the perception that counts. And the policy issue may come back to bite him at election time. But that should be neither our chief strategy nor our chief hope. We are better placed than we have been in the past to tell our own story rather than relying on footnotes to other narratives. I like the current nostrum that we are the challengers to the Tories in the south and to Labour in the north, but that still positions us in terms of other parties. We know that we have more voters who are genuine LibDems and will stick with us because they like us, as other parties' fortunes ebb and flow. Maybe we should be working better at what some of us call the narrative. The “liberal” party in contrast to two authoritarian parties. We localise, they both centralise. And so on.

In terms of by-election tactics I'll admit to being an agnostic. Chris Rennard's account, with figures that we were not privy to when we started the debate, says that we are still taking votes off the Tories – just not enough in the case of Henley. Maybe Glasgow East gives us a chance to see how well we can take votes off Labour. I can see the rationale for the things we do, and they have served us well in an environment where political inertia and the local and national media are often against us. That will continue to be so. Henley is a case in point. We had an excellent story about Howell and the hospital campaign and (I'm not sure but I believe) it was simply ignored by the local BBC station, whereas they made a big thing of Cameron's vapid threat to sue us. I guess that raises the question of whether we worked effectively enough on the media – I don't know. But we will continue to have to fight that for a long time; the media are wedded to that two party left right concept of politics.

One thing we can still do is tell the truth. This often comes under the heading of negative campaigning, but I think there is a place in politics for saying things about your opponents that nobody else would say. If we hadn't made a fuss about Howell's links with developers, and about his lies over the local hospital campaign, nobody else would have mentioned them. We should, I think, continue to point out to the electorate that the Tories have not changed all that much despite Cameron's attempts to keep the lid on their hard right trough swilling tendencies. After all, they do continue to give us plenty of ammunition.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Anyone who thinks ID cards are no problem...

... should read Nich Starling's account of what can happen when the government get hold of your data.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Zimbabwe - what's John Simpson on?

Mugabe's remarkable comeback is the headline of a piece which leads me to believe that John Simpson must have forgotten his medication. His theme is that Mugabe was nearly dead and buried a few weeks ago but has "remarkably" returned to life. He has apparently achieved "an extraordinary turnaround". THere's nothing either remarkable or extraordinary about the situation at all. The only calculation in the minds of Mugabe and his henchmen is how much violence they could get away with, and whether they could afford to pay all the thugs. They concluded rightly that a gradually escalating scale of violence, together with police harassment and judicial intimidation would work nicely without upsetting other Africans too much. If anything is remarkable, it is the lengths to which other African leaders will still go, even today, to say that he's not too bad really.

Simpson then royally plonks his other foot in it when he criticises Tsangirai for choosing the Dutch embassy to take refuge in. It would have been better politically, Simpson says, for him to choose an African embassy. No doubt it would have, but that sort of calculation may not occur to you when you're fleeing soldiers, no doubt in fear for your life, and it's damn difficult to get a taxi in Harare at that time of night...

What's extraordinary is Britain's impotence - a real lesson to those who still think we stride the world's stage like a colossus, and the dithering of the rest of Africa while Zimbabwe falls into complete collapse. I have great respect for John Simpson as a reporter. I can only hope that he will rise again from the standard he has fallen to with this piece.

Saturday, 14 June 2008


For S104, I have been researching tarsiers, for a collaborative exercise we have to complete. They live in and around Borneo, are primates, closely related to us. I am supposed to describe their distinguishing characteristics, which, on an immediate impression, is that they are furry and cuddly, with gorgeous eyes. But I'm supposed to be more scientific than that. They are distinguished from other mammals by having elongated tarsal bones, rather than metatarsals. Less risk of David Beckham injuries then.

This little fellow is typical. Though I must say he looks to me as if he's just spotted the arse on the guy in the post below.

Source: Flickr
Copyright © 2005 Kristoffer Dominic Amora

Viruses, web2.0, weight loss and a big behind

I've spent a portion of last week and this battling a virus downloaded onto a work machine by one of my colleagues who thought it was a good idea to have Limewire. Can't get rid of it, have to wipe the machine, not allowed to do it till they've taken off the stuff they want. It doesn't seem to have entered anyone's head that there's nothing they can do with it without risking infecting whatever machine they put it on. It's not going near any of mine.

A while ago my doctor told me I really had to lose weight now. So I've been dieting, a bit, and exercising, a bit. And I've lost a kilo or two. I've just started using Twitter, and decided it would be good to tweet my weight loss and exercise gain. I thought my doctor might follow me on Twitter and then I wouldn't have to take up surgery time. I showed it to her this week, and she wasn't a bit interested. I still have to go to the surgery. If anybody else would like to follow my endeavours and cheer me on my way down, I'm robparsons. That, by the way, is real proof that Twitter is still very new technology - my name hasn't already been nicked by one of the other robparsonses. There are a lot of us about.

So I went to the bank, and joined the queue for the cashier. As I came to a halt the very large man in front of me was just baring his buttock cheek to show his scar to the two very good looking women on his left. I took my phone out and pretended to get a shot. One of the women then started lowering her trousers to show off her scar. I could say I made my excuses and left. But I didn't. She was the mother of the other woman, it turned out, and the scar was where she'd had her kidney taken out to give it to her daughter. The daughter looked to be a really good health. Rather wish I had taken photos now.

It's been that kind of week.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, the Tories can't punctuate

Leaving aside the issue of the Conservative candidate for Henley working as a lobbyist for developers while claiming to protect the green belt, (hat tip to Alex and LibDem Voice) and leaving aside the smoke screen that the Tory party is trying to put around the issue (apparently it's dirty tricks to tell the truth about their candidate), they do seem to be unable to get their apostrophes in the right place.

Check out the wording on the back of the Tories' "Protect the green belt (with our developer lobbyist chum)" leaflet, helpfully reproduced here by the Guardian. "We, the undersigned.... reject the Liberal Democrat's proposals..." As any fule kno, that apostrophe, as it refers to a plural, should be after the "s". Back to school for the Conservative Henley campaign's proofreading department.

Update: and my deepest apologies to Pink Dog for not noticing the breaking news in canine form, hat tip, hat tip, hat tip.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Carers Can't Afford To Be Ill

This week, 9th - 15th June, is Carers Week, and the title of this post is its motto. Find out more at http://www.carersweek.org/.

They've produced a carer's job description which gives food for thought:

Likely to be appointed at short notice, probably overnight, and will be required to fulfil some or all of the following criteria:
1. Have the ability and stamina to work continual long hours
2. Be available to work up to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
3. Carry out tasks that in other environments would require at least two people
4. Be able to cope with high levels of stress
5. Receive little or no income for carrying out the role
6. Have a vastly diminished social life
7. Work in isolation with little recognition from the outside world
8. Communicate effectively with a wide range of professionals, including social workers, doctors and other health care professionals

The S104 tomato soup experiment

S104 has an experiment asking us to measure the amount of fungus in the air using a sealed container of tomato soup.

This is not for the faint hearted.

The sheep can read, and are disappointed.

I had an irregular container. I measured its volume by filling it with water and pouring it into a measuring jug. I did the same with the tomato soup can and subtracted the one from the other to find the volume of air. Out of curiosity I weighed the full measuring jug (capacity 500ml). It weighed 490 grams, so either the scales are out, or the jug is out or we have strange water in Ringmer. I decided it was close enough for the purposes of this experiment.

Two days. I've never seen such patient wool carriers.

Four days. Signs of life at last.

Seven days - the full Monty. Ruffles threatens to throw Ollie in.

I have an awful lot of fungus. 3.2*104 fungal particles m-3 to 2 s.f. I suspect the container wasn't as clean as it should have been.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Now this is a very good idea.

Ther returning officer for Henley has just started a blog, with the aim of helping people "get a better understanding of how things work from start to finish".

I wonder if they'll set up a twitter as well?

Hat tip: Jonathan Calder.


Inspired - very inspired - by John Dixon on LibDemVoice, I want to put a word in for political correctness. I agree with some of the critical things that have been said about it in the Libdemvoice comments - in fact I find myself agreeing with Darrell, James and Asquith all at once. But I don't agree with the conclusion that we should bypass it entirely.

First of all, some of the definitions that have been used feel unduly exclusive to me. Although much of its short life has been unhappy, I prefer to remember that it was born out of a desire to bring about a social climate in which everybody was respected regardless of race, colour, creed, sexual orientation, etc, etc, etc. As far as I am concerned that is still a worthy aim, and I do not myself associate the idea of political correctness with the idea of state intervention or thought policing. That has come about because of a violent and successful campaign by the right wing to use it as a tool with which to beat the left (and a few, a few, lefties who've been too eager to give them cause), not bothering about the fact that many people who are not left wing quite like the idea of respecting other people. You rarely hear the term "political correctness" nowadays except in the phrase "political correctness gone made", or more usually, and ironically, given that those who say it usually regard themselves as the guardians of our language as well as of their rights, "plicrecnessgummad".

Just lately I have once or twice been in a situation of hearing acquaintances who are not notably right wing use the phrase. It has become such a stock that people use it without thinking. I have contested their version of the social reality of the situation. I've said, "I don't think that's fair on political correctness" (in the course of which I pronounce it properly). I point out that political correctness is about respecting people, and in this country discrimination and exclusion of minorities of all sorts is still a far bigger problem than the difficulty some people have with the idea of choosing their words carefully. That appeared to make them think which is a very good thing.

Now, OK, there are idiots on the left who have given the right an excuse to give political correctness a bad name. There are also idiots on the right who, for instance, still maintain that Luton Borough Council tried to ban Christmas despite all the evidence to the contrary, and that Birmingham tried to rename Christmas as Winterval, despite the eloquent rebuttal of a Birmingham press officer: "We get this every year... We tell them it's bollocks, but it doesn't seem to make much difference."

Joining in with the right and denigrating political correctness just because there have been a few loonies on the left misses the point. There is work to be done to prevent people with power from discriminating against people without power.

I would like to call it respect, because to my mind this country has a big problem with respect. It's one of the things I blame Thatcherism for – I don't blame Thatcherism for everything, but I do believe it went much too far in the deliberate destruction of social cohesion. Thatcherism did away with the last vestiges of the deferential society – a very good thing – and then went a lot further and threw respect out of the window as well. I would like to work for a return of respect. The trouble is even that simple, honest term is tainted, firstly, and weakly, by Blair's respect agenda – remember that (a good idea but so feeble in its execution)? Secondly and poisonously by its hijacking by the weasel George Galloway. Maybe it would be easier to start talking about respect rather than talking about political correctness – I don't know. What I do know is that when I say to my friends "I want to stand up for poltiical correctness, and here's why", they actually start listening, and that can be no bad thing. I assume it's because the idea is so novel given the constant outpouring of diatribe by the plicrecnessgummad tendency.

So at the moment, purely on an empirical basis, I stand up for political correctness because it works. I am sure that it will continue to be an uphill struggle though, but sometimes you have to dig in and damn well struggle. Things won't change until those of us who believe in respecting individuals start standing up for that belief and are as persistent as those who would denigrate it.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Wood free?

My eye was caught by this report on LibDem Voice about the first leaflet put out by the Conservatives in Henley. Interesting how "outraged of Crewe" has turned into "local of Henley". It linked to a piece in ThameNews about the (very local) Green candidate, Mark Stevenson.

At the bottom of that piece Mark is quoted as saying, "But we have to be charitable about this", Mark continued, "it could just be a stupid mistake made in a hurry. After all 'intouch' also declared itself to be printed on woodfree pulp sourced from sustainable forests. Just how sustainable are woodfree forests? I wonder."

Well, I wondered what "woodfree paper" is, so I googled it. And I discovered that it's made from, er, wood.

Wikipedia explains.

And Siemens illustrates with a very clear, and, I must say, beautifully constructed interactive diagram. Siemens are also honest about the energy use involved in the production.

So it's a case of vote blue, get unsubstantiated claims about not using wood. But, before anybody else says it, I shudder to think how many LibDem leaflets might say the same thing.

You can get actual woodfree paper. Elephant dung is of course the latest thing, though questions arise as to economies of scale. I do wonder about the economics of rearing large herds of elephants in order to employ vast armies of, probably, non-Europeans to go poop-scooping behind them as they crash their way through what's left of the world's savannah. (Elephantdung.co.uk is "down for restructuring" at the moment. I thought that only happened to government departments.)

You can get paper that's not made from wood, but is instead made from other carbon forms, such as cereals or bananas. As far as I can see, that doesn't really make any difference, unless trees take a lot more CO2 out of the atmosphere than cereals (must check that - but if I remember rightly trees respire, cereals don't or something like that). It's still giving a large chunk of the planet over to a massive and polluting form of capitalist production. But can you beat a leaflet for getting the message over at election time?

Monday, 2 June 2008

HTM on Openlearn

Health Partners International and the Open University have recently been collaborating on the production of a sample unit of a course on healthcare technology management for developing countries. The course is based on a series on six manuals that HPI (in its former incarnation of Ziken International) produced with DFID funding. The manuals are now freely available in electronic form. They are however rather big, each around 300 pages, and there are six of them. I was concerned about the usability of such a document and came up with the idea of basing a course around them, so that potential users could get familiar with the whole thing and decide how much of it they want to use.

The unit was finished in May and is available at the Openlearn Labspace site:

We took it to the Institution of Engineering and Technology conference on Appropriate Healthcare Technology for Developing Countries (see the post below) and gave it a run out. I introduced it, giving some of the history of the manuals project, Giselle Ferreira introduced the Openlearn platform and Pieter de Ruijter introduced the course itself. There was some lively discussion afterwards and there seemed to be a lot of enthusiasm for the idea. But the proof of the pudding is always in the eating. We'll get some user stats from the OU later this month and then we'll sit down and see if there is a case for finding funding for the whole thing. I will shortly be advertising it on Infratech and asking for constructive criticism. I feel enormously pleased with it despite having done nothing on it myself – all I did was bring the right people together. So now I wait with bated breath to see what engineers and civil servants all over the world think of it.

Appropriate Healthcare Technology

I recently attended the Institution of Engineering and Technology conference on Appropriate Healthcare Technology for Developing Countries. You might think it's not the sexiest thing to do but a) it's at Savoy Place with a gorgeous view over the Thames, b) healthcare technology in developing countries means the differencve between life and death for a lot of people c) they showcase the most alluring bits of kit and d) you get to meet a lot of really interesting people from all over the world. It happens every two years. I first went in 2006 and was bowled over by items such as the open source solar powred wireless router for setting up intranets in the jungle, and the $300 foetal heart monitor that works off mains, battery, solar power or wind up.

This conference was much like the 2006 one in having two strands. The first and brighter strand is the introduction and discussion of new pieces of kit or new uses for known technology. Stars of this occasion were
- the Shakerscope - a light source which is powered by shaking it up and down, and then has ophthalmoscope, otoscope and laryngoscope fittings.
- the U-Flow meter – primarily because of cost. The standard machine costs about £4000, compared with the U-Flow's, wait for it, £7. I now know a lot more about urology than I did before.
- the touchscreen medical record system devised by Baobab in Malawi.

The second strand, for which there were more presentations, and which was keenly debated, was a number of presentations on management issues. The first presentation, given by GTZ's Joseph Riha, was typical – an account of the four year process, still not completed, of getting the idea of having an HTM policy accepted in Cameroon. This was typical of the presentations which followed, and of informal conversations, in which the talk was of equally long lead times, lack of coherence or cohesion in approaches at different elvels in the organisation, if not in the same level, and general difficulty and intransigence of the situation. This mirrors the feeling at the last AHT conference I went to in 2006. Two years has not moved us very far. One of the key factors is that GTZ were big funders of HCT and decided a while ago to pull out of the field. The outlook for funding was quite bleak two years ago, but this year there are some indications that other people are beginning to step into the hole left by GTZ. There is, however, a clear picture of unjoined up thinking going on among health ministries and districts all over the developing world.

There were further examples of badly specified equipment, badly maintained equipment, lack of ground preparation, careless handling, machinery useless due to lack of spare parts, etc – we don't seem to have moved forward there at all. The figure normally quoted (and used by Mladen Poluta in this conference) is 50% of hospital equipment lying idle for one reason or another. There was a debate at the conference as to how true that figure is with some maintaining that there is evidence that it is only 30% - it's still a lot of millions.

Peter Heimann noted the lack of research tools to meassure impact, and even the lack in our knowledge of whether the difficulties are policy driven or capacity driven.

Mladen Poluta - http://conferences.theiet.org/aht/keynote.htm - (you need to scroll to the bottom) started from the definition currently adopted referring to "the drugs, devices, and medical and surgical procedures used in healthcare, and the organisational and supportive systems within which such care is provided.". And its goal is "…optimising the acquisition and utilisation of healthcare technologies to achieve maximum beneficial impact on health outcomes" (quoting Rakich et al). And issues in the field are that HTM is or has:

highly politicised
many role-players
low skills base in DCs
environmental constraints

He advocates a formal framework for management policy, much as project management as such has a formal framework. He suggests AIM-HIT, as developed at Cape University over some years,

Assessment – Innovation – Management
Healthcare Infradstructure and Technologies

I think this has the particular virtue of focussing on infrastrcuture as well as on technology, but it also seems to leave a lot uncovered. Earlier in his presentation, Mladen talked about the need to see HTM in project management terms. Much of the other stuff he talked about was different ways of saying the same thing – in other words the need to manage properly:

a) Match delivery to capacity
• Prioritisation
• Asset management
• HR– building and retaining capacity
• Information

b) determining efficacy and effectiveness (bearing in mind the much greater difference in the developing world between efficacy and effectivenss)

c) providing quality, coverage and doing it at the right cost.

All these are things which good managers do, which raises in my mind the question of whether the capacity exists in many places to do this properly. This is clearly a key issue because of the proportion of budget that is sunk in HCT already, and the impact that HCT could have on health and survival rates.

There's a lot more in his presentation which can be found via:
http://conferences.theiet.org/aht/thursday.htm but the key thing is this issue about management - if we don't get it right we will continue to lose millions of pounds and millions of people unnecessarily.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

That complete waste of money known as ID cards (again)

Another attempted terrorist outrage - the Exeter Giraffe bombing - which happened while I was tucking into a burger in its twin in London. We can add this to the attempted airport bombings, and to the July 2005 bombs and attempted bombs in London.

All carried out by people who were exactly who they said they were. The £18 billion (and rising) ID card scheme would have made not one jot of difference.

Are they trying to lose our respect?

As reported on the BBC: "'Lump sum expenses plan' for MPs - MPs could seek to avoid future expenses criticism by awarding themselves an automatic lump sum of £23,000 a year for second homes, it has emerged."

To be fair the headline is slightly misleading. The truth is that only some MPs are after this. Others, like Norman Baker, recognise it for what it is: "an outrageous idea" - quoted in the BBC piece linked above.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Trouble in Belize?

The Economist also shines a light in A $10m mystery on some of the underpinnings of Lord Ashcroft's wealth, and reminds us that his tax status is still unresolved despite the promise the Tories made in the year 2000 that he would resume permanent residence in Britain. Eight years and they still haven't made good on that promise. Money is worth so much more than keeping your word... Not something they'll relish being reminded of as they try to keep their cuddly champion of the poor image in front of us.

Air drops to Burma?

The Economist this week advocates air drops to victims of the flooding in Burma - here's the twist, whether or not the junta agree to them.

I will quote the final paragraph of the editorial, which is the finest single paragraph of rhetorical writing I have seen in a while: "More storms are forecast for Myanmar. If thousands more people are to die in the coming weeks, let those who oppose any action now, however modest its effect, then explain why they favoured a policy of doing nothing. And let them try to describe the circumstances in which the new-found responsibility to protect might actually be invoked if it is not just to join the UN's scrapheap of dashed expectations, broken promises and dismal betrayals."

Friday, 16 May 2008

Commons loses MPs' expenses fight

Hip hip hooray, and jump for joy. At last a bit of light in the murky corridors of power. As long as they don't appeal - I really hope not. Few things have looked cheaper than this. (Some would say the move back to a 10p tax rate was a cheap stunt, but actually it was darned expensive.)

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Terror legislation and encryption keys

There's a good article at The Register about the police not making much use of the powers they've had since October 2007 to demand that people hand over encryption keys to material on their computers, on pain of a stay at HM's pleasure of up to five years.

They've used it precisely 8 times. That's one a month. And only four of the eight were actually terror related. So basically they've hardly used one of the powers the government said they had to have, and half of the cases they've used them on had nothing to do with terror. The others were to do with conspiracy to murder, conspiracy to defraud and child porn, which are themselves terrible things, but not terror. At least they haven't used them yet to investigate the computers of parents trying to get their kids into a good school.

Furthermore, here's a piece of not-joined-up government thinking. One of the arguments for the 42 day detention without trial thing is that it gives the police longer to break the encryption on computers belonging to suspects. But they don't need it. If Mr Suspect doesn't give them the key, he can be banged up for five years - which gives the police ample time to crack the wretched thing.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

When carrying out experiments...

Not much experimenting in S104 lately, till today, measuring the specific heat capacity of water.

The first safety precaution "keep children and animals away while you are working" proved difficult to implement...

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Same old, same old...

The Conservatives say they are changing. Well, in a way they are. The party of law and order, now doesn't seem to be the party of law. They'd rather give the government powers to weasel out of any inconvenient legal proceedings, using national security as an excuse.

There's a lot more here and here.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Shocked by the Daily Telegraph....

Well, not the Telegraph so much as its readers. I was directed to a piece in today's Telegraph by Jeff Randall, "In a land without morals, it's no wonder children kill each other", a slightly confused "blame all today's ills on the sixties" fairly standard right wing flag waver.

That didn't bother me too much - ordinary stuff by a journalist earning today's pennorth with some rehashed tripe. What did shock me though was the comments that this piece attracted. I was not prepared for the volume and level of sheer virulence and bile that spouted out from the comments beneath this piece. I was bemused by the facft that the Telegraph comment board is moderated, and the moderator was quite happily letting all of these through. Several comments were along the lines of "I can't say what I really think, or I'll be moderated" from people who clearly didn't realise that the man with the finger on the button today was gleefully letting through any rant that came along, the more right wing and bilious the better.

A selection:

“And all the time we allow lawless immoral thieving Marxist scum to run our government then so such behaviour will be encouraged to continue”

“200,000 terminations a year? Since most will be to unmarried women that's 200,000 fewer feral youths. Crime prevention at it's best. The middle classes should be paying into a fund to help England out by offering more terminations to the oiks. This country could do with a few less mewling cabbages.”

“The lack of effective punishment is a major factor! If it is pain that they crave - bring back the Birch - they will soon lose the notion that only they can cause pain. I am aware of the outrage such a move would stir up with comment like "back to the Dark ages" etc - but some of these people are in the Dark ages and it seems that pain is the only thing they "respect".”

“This article hits on everything except the elephant in the room. The importation of massive numbers of immigrants from third world countries who have an average IQ of 85.”

“At last someone is talking sense. There are a feral packs of children wondering the streets. The answer more prisons and tougher penalities to protect society from this toxic slime.”

“What a scum laden country, the U.K. has become! I hope they all live next to those 60's liberals, or have they all pi**ed off to the Dordogne.”

“The increase in violent crime is due to west indian/ afro american gang culture, not forgetting drugs/ alcohol to facilitate. The UK is more effected then the rest of Europe because we have more exposure to these cultures through a common language and immigration. You would be surprised how many white/ asian children speak with west indian accents nowadays,”

“We need a war. A proper war where young men in massive numbers are given no choice but to go off to war and fight.”

“The problem is that 99.9% of the readers of your comment will think you are a nutter and fail to understand that they are part of the 99.9% of the population who are deluded. Pearls before swine etc. The pity is that you didn't include the scripture from proverbs:- Spare the rod and spoil the Child. Sadly this too would only add to the feeding frenzie of the 99.9% referred to above. Human rights nonesense and all that utter garbage. The Grammer School that I attended in the 50's required me to visit the Head Master on a number of occassions for a good caning. I then went to HMS Conway and deservedly recieved a regular flogging with the "ropes end". You haven't lived until you have a thorough going over with the "ropes end" and I would recommend it to all those who are required to learn how to love their neigbour as themselves. A large proportion being the 99.9% referred to above.”

“This is the reality of tribal multiculturalism in action-no common identity or shared values,no accepted authority structure or respected moral code -just an urban jungle, fed by small and large scale tribal,territorial,'warlord' dominated gangsterism. Downtown Mogadishu as a case study? Why is anyone at all surprised?”

“There is a sub-class of people building in our country. I use the term 'people' loosely. They are in fact not far removed from animals. They are illiterate, fornicating amoral rejects. These people are, frankly, not worthy of being called human beings. I am quite serious in my believe that these sub-class animals should be neutered to stop them breeding. Further more, if they do not attempt to reform their ways, and after due legal process, they should be put to sleep.”

“The more the hooligan element abort their offspring fetus the better as far as I am concerned. The social system will just end up paying for 'it's' support, whilst 'it's' breeders end up in prison or living off crime. Britain is more than on it's way to becoming the dustbin of europe.”

“I also believe that abortion used INSTEAD OF CONTRACEPTION is a prime factor in creating feral youth. When children can see mothers gleefully killing off their growing babies in the womb, why wouldn't they believe that killing is perfectly reasonable and permitted?????”

“They are black. It is as simple as that. The Kingston, Jamaica murder culture is now entrenched in British cities. Add to that black children and youths from Somalia and West Africa where it is de rigeur to chop people up and it's welcome to multi-culturism.”

“We need capital punishment, the cat, the stocks and the pillary,of course nobody has the guts to carry this out.”


“In these comments, no-one has mentioned one of the true culprits: feminism. Feminism sits there avoiding blame for the breakdown of the family, sexual immorality, the evil of elective abortions, dependence of families upon benefit and state aid at the expense of the taxpayer, parental neglect of children and womens' love of money rather than love of their offspring.”

I expect the odd bring back the birch from a red faced colonel somewhere in Tunbridge Wells and the odd it's all because of immigrants from the odd young white male completely ignorant of both economics and history, but I was quite shaken by the extent of the bile here, and the number of targets people took aim at. There is a disjunction here that I am becoming more and more conscious of, that there are many people in this country who are in fact very powerful but who feel disenfranchised. We so misunderstand the true nature of Britain and of Britain's place in the world today that we feel - wrongly - completely out of place. While I find most of the sentiments quoted above utterly repugnant, I have to grapple with the fact that people do genuinely (in most cases - there were some trolls about) feel as they speak. And that needs to be confronted, somehow, in every place and at every time.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Are we getting learning wrong?

I spent yesterday in the beautiful surroundings of the Brunei Gallery at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. I was at a conference on "Distance learning and development". There was a day of discussions and break out sessions followed by an evening reception with a keynote speaker Professor Sugata Mitra.

The day was taken up with earnest, sometimes entertaining, but all slightly hollow discussions about what universities could do to help in the international development process. There were some interesting accounts of work that was being done but overall there was a rather dull and corporate air about it. Most of the discussion seemed to start with the universities and assumed that the learners would somehow be shoehorned into what they had to offer. The market was not defined or brought into focus much at all. Symptomatic of this was a view I heard expressed by several different people, so much that it seemed to be a common understanding, that partnerships are terribly difficult and usually break down. It was suggested that this might be due to a lack of skill in facilitating cross cultural discussions, which I thought was a bit feeble. I wondered if the cause of some of the apparent breakdowns was that the institutions hadn't worked out what the point of the partnership was. Nobody seemed to be starting with what students do and what they want. Lunch was nice though, and I got some networking done.

The evening session, though, turned all of this on its head. I had never before heard of the Hole In The Wall project, or of Professor Mitra, but I'll never forget either of them. The original idea was simple - put a computer in a hole in the wall in a public place and see what happens. His first few experiments were in India. What happens, he found, is that children take control of it, and do all sorts of learning that you would think they would be incapable of. The key to the success of hole in the wall computers is twofold - firstly the children are completely in charge - there is no agenda, no curriculum, and secondly, learning is done in groups and is collaborative.

When Prof Mitra originally put a computer in a wall on a town street, the spontaneous reactions of the people who found it were to use it in a public way; children came and tried it out, played with it, found things out, in twos, threes, fours, groups of any kind. On finding out that it worked, Prof Mitra started to raise the barriers. He put one into a classroom and gave the children a tricky problem to solve - and found that they solved it eventually through a collective process of discovery. He got to the point of trying to set a problem that they could not solve in order to test the boundaries of this form of learning. He downloaded some difficult material on biotechnology, all in English, a foreign language to the children he gave it to. He locked the computer in a room in the school they were in, and he gave the key to the children. When he returned a few months later, he asked them what they had been able to learn. They said they'd learned nothing, it had been very difficult, they couldn't understand it. They talked some more,and Prof Mitra asked again if they'd learned anything, and a girl said, "Well, if you replicate defective DNA you get genetic diseases, but apart from that, nothing." he investigated further with this girl who showed him the things she knew - she showed him material on Alzheimer's disease, and, when he asked what it was, she said, "It's complicated, but it's why old people forget". So, even when he made things as difficult as he could for these very young children, they found ways to make learning happen. The girl in this story was particularly interesting - she had started out with a couple of boys, but the boys had said to her "We'll do this.You're only a girl,you won't understand". So she had said to them, "I'll come back when you're gone then". And she did return, determined to prove them wrong.

Prof Mitra is now at Newcastle, and has been working in the neighbourhood there. He was invited to a primary school in Gateshead (as he cheerily put it, "the remotest of the remote places I have been to"). The children he worked with there, aged around 10, had been beneficiaries of the one laptop per child scheme, but they were not using them. Mitra set up a challenge. He devised six GCSE level questions on science, the environment and such issues, and he told the children there was only one rule - they had to work in groups and there was one laptop per group. They settled into groups of four, and, completely undirected apart from that, all but one of the groups solved the problems. The first did it in 20 minutes and the rest all within an hour. The group that didn't consisted of one girl and three boys. As soon as the exercise began, the boys all went to the toilet and did not come back. The girl tried on her own but was unable to make progress.

These examples are strong proof that learning works well when self directed and even better when done in groups. A noticeable finding from some of the hole in the wall studies was that only a small group would be actively involved in working the machine or making suggestions from close by, but that a larger group standing by but contributing relatively little also gained knowledge and expertise.

So, as Prof Mitra said, maybe one laptop per child is a bad idea. How much are we in the west preventing learning happening by individualising it as much as we do?