UK News

Fair Trials

Fair trials are important to me, if the person is innocent it's important they go free, and if guilty it's important that they're punished. So far, so non-brainer. A persistent annoyance in this country (as exemplified by the recent Ipswich Murders case where two men were arrested, the second to be arrested is in court today, the first is on bail), over the past few days, all sorts of material has been dug up about these two. From a picture of one of them apparently strangling their wife (both with smiles on their faces) to 'news' that the other was a transvestite. This information may or may not be true, it may or not be pertinent to the case - but what it should not be is in the public domain right now.

In the event that one (or both) of the men is innocent, then they'll have had their private lives dragged through the mud and will have to live with that inevitable stigma. In the event that one (or both) of the men is guilty, then this information being published could have the effect of prejudicing a trial - these are already very public cases. This could give rise to the man getting off on a technicality (e.g. the impossibility of a fair trial)... or it could lead to a wrongful conviction (leaving the real murderer 'out there').

So, we have two suspected, but not guilty, men with details made public. At the same time, a 15 year old girl is found guilty of stabbing their classmate in the eye with some scissors, and the media is not allowed to report her details 'for legal reasons'.

I'm not in favour of shielding the guilty - but, putting aside information released to aide the manhunt, I wouldn't want to do anything which would either reduce the confidence in any eventual trial or make the lives of those wrongly suspected more difficult.

Polonium on a Plane

Where's Sam Jackson when you need him? Polonium on a Plane could be a great sequel! There is a storm in a teacup at the moment about planes being grounded due to Polonium being found. before I address that, it's probably best to get a bee out of my bonnet.

Radiation isn't inherently bad, if you get cancer treatment you are likely to be exposed to a gamma emitter, alpha emitters (often Americium) are used in smoke detectors (read the small print, there is a limit to the number of smoke detectors you can put in domestic waste for that reason) - and beta sources can be used to help check fill levels of containers, or the thickness of sheet metal as it's rolled flat. Gamma sources can also be used to sterilise medical equipment in remote areas.

The big issue here is the fact that someone was murdered. If a state was involved, then there are diplomatic repurcussions, if a state were not involved then we have the problem is individuals gaining access to large quantities of Polonium (not an easy substance to get hold of).

Speaking as someone who knows a not insubstantial amount about physics, unless the Polonium on the Plane is in extremely high doses then it's not worth worrying about as a member of the public... alphas get blocked by a few cm of air and so unless you're in direct contact with the emitter, it's not a problem. Even then, skin is pretty good at blocking alphas! Even sitting next to the person carrying the Polonium would have been fine.

Ingesting an alpha emitter is much more of a problem, as the thing doing the blocking is your gut itself. So, unless you're licking the plane (or getting Polonium on your hands and subsequently ingesting it) then don't sweat it. The one potential issue is if the Polonium was split on the plane, this could then be picked up.

Ignoring background radiation, the fact that everything emits some amount of radiation; Merely being near a radioactive emitter doesn't in turn make something radioactive (if it did, everything would become radioactive).

As for why the Polonium wasn't picked up in screening, it's virtually impossible to detect an alpha emitter, the alphas can be stopped by a few cm of air, or a sheet of paper. Therefore ANY sort of container would render the Polonium undetectable.

When I was growing up, we had Johnny Ball on TV to explain science issues to the public. Where is the modern day equivalent? (No, I don't want someone who fits the 'boffin' stereotype, I want someone knowledgeable, enthusiastic, able to talk to children (without talking down to them) and adults alike - someone who assumes intelligence in their listener. Johnny Ball is still around... he'd fit the bill nicely!

Warning: May Not Contain Dragon

Welsh trading standards have complained that the labelling of 'Welsh Dragon' sausages are misleading.... .... it sounds like a rather comic story. They could be represented as thinking that people might be confused about the possibility of Dragon meat. Rather boringly, it's much more reasonable.

I don't think anyone would imagine that dragon meat was being used but we would not want vegetarians to buy the sausages believing they were meat free.

So, all they're asking for is 'Welsh Dragon Pork Sausages' in place of 'Welsh Dragon Sausages'. Not really that unreasonable, at least it wouldn't be if the word 'pork' were not on the label anyway.

Poppy Fascism

Jon Snow has responded to complaints that he's not wearing a Poppy on air

He said: "I am begged to wear an Aids ribbon, a breast cancer ribbon, a Marie Curie flower... You name it, from the Red Cross to the RNIB, they send me stuff to wear to raise awareness, and I don't.

"And in those terms, and those terms alone, I do not and will not wear a poppy.

"Additionally there is a rather unpleasant breed of poppy fascism out there - 'He damned well must wear a poppy!'.

"Well I do, in my private life, but I am not going to wear it or any other symbol on air."

Good for him. He's taken a principled decision that as a newsreader he should be as neutral as he can in his presentation of the news, and that he will avoid symbology, even that which he agrees with.

For me, I find myself starting to resent the (apparent) earlier and earlier march of the poppy. This resentment surprises me, as generally I'm supportive of the aims of the poppy appeal. Remembrance day is today but every year the poppies seem to bloom earlier and earlier, it seems there's a march to become the first to don a poppy, especially on television. This cheapens the symbol, and, like Christmas decorations in October, reduces the impact of the event itself - it becomes familiar - 'background noise'.

I bought a poppy some days ago and I will be wearing a poppy today and until sunday, but I didn't wear one yesterday, and I won't be wearing one on monday.

Jon Snow, Lindsay Taylor and Sarah Smith write on the topic.

Farepack

At the moment in the UK there is a 'scandal' involving people losing their Christmas savings as they were saving with a company that then went bankrupt. Whilst I've every sympathy for them, I am moved to wonder the following:

Why did they not open a savings account, and earn some interest? (and as a bonus, have their savings protected by the FSA)

I mean, what advantages did they hope to accrue by using this company as compared to using a savings account?

Buckingham Palace to be lit by LEDs

Buckingham Palace is to be lit using LED lighting according to a BBC story. Greenpeace aren't happy:

environmental group Greenpeace said it was "disappointed" at the decision....

Greenpeace spokesman Charlie Kronick said: "These lights are going to blaze away until the end of her reign, and the way she's going, that could be a very long time, probably long enough to see the catastrophic effects of climate change strike our country and the wider world."

Erm, talk about a straw man argument. LED lighting is very efficient, with little energy wasted as heat. At least they didn't raise the issue of light pollution for a central london landmark!

Nice and subtle choice of words there, Charlie: 'blaze away until the end of her reign, and the way she's going, that could be a very long time, '

It would have been much more effective to say 'though we'd rather not waste energy lighting up buildings, re recognise that this is sometimes required due to other reasons, and we hope that across London wasteful filament lamps are replaced by this more efficient technology, and that thought is given to not sending rhe light into the sky'.

Ultimately, that would have been a better message.

Bruce Schneier on terrorism (again)

Bruce Schneier has another good article on terrorism, essentially saying in an eloquent way what I've been boring anyone who'll listen with for the past couple of weeks.

The point of terrorism is to cause terror, sometimes to further a political goal and sometimes out of sheer hatred. The people terrorists kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up planes, trains, markets or buses is not the goal; those are just tactics. The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act.

And we're doing exactly what the terrorists want.

We're all a little jumpy after the recent arrest of 23 terror suspects in Great Britain. The men were reportedly plotting a liquid-explosive attack on airplanes, and both the press and politicians have been trumpeting the story ever since.

In truth, it's doubtful that their plan would have succeeded; chemists have been debunking the idea since it became public. Certainly the suspects were a long way off from trying: None had bought airline tickets, and some didn't even have passports.

Regardless of the threat, from the would-be bombers' perspective, the explosives and planes were merely tactics. Their goal was to cause terror, and in that they've succeeded.

Imagine for a moment what would have happened if they had blown up 10 planes. There would be canceled flights, chaos at airports, bans on carry-on luggage, world leaders talking tough new security measures, political posturing and all sorts of false alarms as jittery people panicked. To a lesser degree, that's basically what's happening right now.

Our politicians help the terrorists every time they use fear as a campaign tactic. The press helps every time it writes scare stories about the plot and the threat. And if we're terrified, and we share that fear, we help. All of these actions intensify and repeat the terrorists' actions, and increase the effects of their terror.

Quite so.

Regional Cows

Like birds, it has been found that cows have regional accents. On the BBC news site they have recordings. Whilst I'm quite happy to go with mooing variations, I'm not terribly convinced that the cow accent should be in any way reminiscent of the human accent, as the Five Live snippet seems to suggest.

This is also discussed on language log.

(This is a case of something which has been 'spun' from 'it is possible' to 'it is true')

Guy Goma: The Movie

You might remember that, back in May, Guy Goma went for a job interview for a backroom position at the BBC and ended up being interviewed on Live Television on a topic about which he knew nothing. Now, they're looking at making a movie based on his story.

Mr Goma is quoted as saying "If they want to do a movie, I don't mind talking with them,".

I'll bet he doesn't mind!

Guy Goma later made an appearance on Jonathan Ross' show, and then on GMTV. I've also found a clip of the original broadcast.

UKPoliBlog

It's time to link to something I've been fiddling with on and off for some time. I present the 'UK Political Blog' or 'UKPoliBlog'. Essentially it collects feeds from a variety of sources (always linking to the original) and presents them in a format which provides a 'cross section' of the news.

Each column is by, or about, a particular party. The three main UK parties have their own columns, the fourth column is everything else.

Things missing:

  1. An obvious way to suggest feeds
  2. A master RSS feed (I can't see a straightforward way to preserve the 'cross section' concept)
  3. There are precious few feeds for some columns (e.g. official labour rss feeds, feeds about minor parties, etc)
  4. Some of the feeds don't validate as the source feeds don't correctly encode & as & - I can't find an automatic way to fix that
  5. I would also like to automatically remove old items from the database once they fall off the main page. I have no idea how to do this.

Any suggestions/comments?

The Friday thing on 'Going with the Crowd'

The Friday Thing has a nice take on the difficulty on maintaining a classically liberal perspective in the face of the propaganda that 'The evil-doers Want You Dead' all the time. (Note, original link broken, link amended)

The media can't help but be somewhat complicit in the terrorist agenda, because without the media we wouldn't know we're meant to be terrified...

...however often you remind yourself that you're vastly more likely to get hit by a bus than blown up on one, you're never immune to the threat of fear-based bigotry...

Feasibility of airline plot

Over on 'Interesting People', a chemist discusses the feasibility of the recent 'airline plot' which caused so much disruption at Heathrow (after it was supposed to have been foiled).

You also need quite a bit of organic peroxides made by this route in order to be sure of taking down a plane. I doubt that just a few grams is going to do it -- though of course the first couple of grams you are likely to go off before you make any more. The possibility of doing all this in an airplane lav or by some miracle at your seat seems really unlikely.

So far as I can tell, for the pragmatic terrorist, the whole thing sounds really impractical.

The article goes into some detail of the chemistry involved, and then discusses the 'slippery slope' of trying to eliminate all possible risks (you can't).

It concludes with a sanity check about the level of risk involved in various everyday activities.

So can someone tell me where the madness is going to end? My back of the envelope says about as many people die in the US every month in highway accidents than have died in all our domestic terrorist incidents in the last 50 years. Untold numbers of people in the US are eating themselves to death and dying of heart disease, diabetes, etc. -- I think that number is something like 750,000 people a year? Even with all the terrorist bombings of planes over the years, it is still safer to travel by plane than it is to drive to the airport, and it is even safer to fly than to walk!

At some point, we're going to have to accept that there is a difference between real security and Potemkin security (or Security Theater as Bruce Schneier likes to call it), and a difference between realistic threats and uninteresting threats. I'm happy that the police caught these folks even if their plot seems very sketchy, but could we please have some sense of proportion?

Update: The Register discusses the chemistry of the situation.

NTL bought by Branson?

I've just had a guy knocking at my door from NTL. Apparently NTL has been bought out by Richard Branson, who is looking to inject a wad of cash in getting things up to speed. (Update: Googling about a little, it seems that this is fairly old news, and that Branson isn't the sole shareholder, he's the majority shareholder, owning 14%)

About time.

I said the following:

  1. Customer Service (historically shoddy)
  2. Bit Rate seems to be reduced of late, even on popular channels (the last few episodes of 'The West Wing' suffered from colour banding).
  3. The 'guide' sucks. It also blows. It's slow and only has three days of programmes.
  4. There is only a single tuner in the digibox, so we can't watch one thing and record another. Fortunately with 'second chances' and +1 services, this is rarely a massive issue.
  5. There is no harddrive. This means that:
    1. The guide cannot be cached, which in turn uses bandwidth, reducing speed, and also reducing bandwidth available for channels
    2. Programmes cannot be recorded 'in the box' (as with Sky+)
  6. Problems with internet connectivity, I diagnosed a problem, had the diagnosis confirmed and it's still not fixed.

I was told that Branson would be putting in some serious money (bless his little red socks), and that they were surveying to find out what was needed. I was told that a HD box would be announced in the next few months, which would have a hard drive in it. (I don't care about HD (High Definition), I replied, once you have DVD quality my eyes cannot see the further improvements - what I want is reliability and responsiveness of service - there is no point in HD if the system can't take the current bit rate).

With NTL I remain a little sceptical about their getting their act together for historical reasons, however, if true - fantastic.

Get the postage wrong....

I learn from the Guardian that after the postal prices change next week, if the sender gets the postage wrong then the addressee will be fined £1 plus the full cost of the postage (not the difference). I.e. if I put 32p on a light, A4 letter, the recipient gets a fine of £1.44

Quite apart from the issue that the postage has been paid twice, the fine is levied upon the person who had no hand in the error.

If I send a heavy item which should have £10 postage, but put £9.50 on it, the fine would be £11 under these rules, not £1.50 as might be deemed 'fair' (though it's still paid by the addressee), or 50p as it would be now (the difference is currently paid).

This means that the item costing £10 to post, with £9.50 postage on it will see a revenue to the post office of £20.50!

I wonder how long it'll be before anti-junk mail campaigns take note of this, and use the fine to punish the junk mail companies?

'Return to sender' may be happening a fair bit.

Schneier on Plane Security

Bruce Schneier, security consultant extraordinaire, has written on the recent 'aeroplane plot', in an article which starts:

Hours-long waits in the security line. Ridiculous prohibitions on what you can carry onboard. Last week's foiling of a major terrorist plot and the subsequent airport security graphically illustrates the difference between effective security and security theater.

None of the airplane security measures implemented because of 9/11 -- no-fly lists, secondary screening, prohibitions against pocket knives and corkscrews -- had anything to do with last week's arrests. And they wouldn't have prevented the planned attacks, had the terrorists not been arrested. A national ID card wouldn't have made a difference, either.

Instead, the arrests are a victory for old-fashioned intelligence and investigation. Details are still secret, but police in at least two countries were watching the terrorists for a long time. They followed leads, figured out who was talking to whom, and slowly pieced together both the network and the plot.

The rest of the article is well worth a read, and I encourage you to click through to it.

Royal Mail

So, the Royal Mail are revising their postage prices. It's no longer going to be based upon weight, but also size. There will be a surcharge for items thicker than 5mm (thus making it more expensive to post things like DVDs). Large and light items will likely be much more expensive (e.g. poster tubes).

They say that only 20% of mail will be more expensive, but there is also added hassle - I can no longer just shove a stamp on a birthday card with a thick badge in case it's thicker than 5mm.

The prices will rise at the lighter and thicker end of the scale.

The trouble with a size based scheme is what happens for something slightly squashy, if it puffs out a bit en route does the addressee have to pay a surcharge, will posties have calipers? At least with the mass-only system this was pretty definitive.

If they don't handle the price changes well, they've got the potential to become quite unpopular.

Coupled with this, the post office is to stop selling TV licences - guaranteed to annoy the 'direct debits are evil' brigade.

Quote of the Week: Sunbathing

There is a story on the BBC news website about a case where a woman was taken to court for sunbathing nude in her garden (for the record, she won)

The story contains this wonderful quote from the complainant:

Father-of-three Mr Jones told magistrates: "I was renovating the back of my home with a local builder when Ms Burgess appeared in her garden.

"She walked back and fore completely naked - I went to get my video camera to record the incident. "

Yes. Quite.