L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

03 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

Frinton - A Town in Decline?

I doubt I shall be making this a regular feature, however, as I mentioned last week, standards of decorum and behaviour seem to be slipping in this refuge of the genteel retired. Fortunately I am pleased to say that while standards my be slipping they have yet to fall in any serious way, however there are cracks in the façade that could well indicate more serious problems.

Problem number 1 is not directly a Frinton problem. It seems that Essex boys from closer in to the big smoke have decided that it is a wicked jape to take the train to some place in the sticks such as Frinton and cause a certain amount of mayhem. Frinton is a favoured location because there is no one to check train tickets (so like that chap at the Gare du Nord they tend to avoid paying the full fare) and no local police station (it was shut a few years ago). Hence when the japesters show up there is no one in authority to catch them as they fare dodge, indulge in petty theft or cause (mostly minor) vandalism. I don't quite know what the solution is but one suspects that having an army of ticket inspectors getting on the appropriate train at Colchester would be a good start.
[Aside: My preferred solution for the vandals is fairly simple - stocks. Anyone caught vandalizing is sentenced to be placed in the stock for a certain period of time near the location of his crime - and in Frinton I think this would be particularly good. A few hours spent standing in the open air with the "invigorating" North wind howling past would probably convince these rowdies that they should think of other ways to have fun. Of course such a punishment would be illegal under all sorts of human rights conventions because the poor criminals would be publically shamed, would suffer physical discomfort and might even die of hypothermia but I reckon it would be more effective than any of the permitted punishments.]

Problem number 2 is the hollowing out of the commercial heart. Douglas Adams once wrote about the Shoe Event Horizon. Frinton has avoided that fate but instead seems to be approaching the charity shop event horizon at breakneck speed. If you combine charity shops with more nakedly commercial purveyors of antiques, bric-a-brac and 2nd hand tat you end up describing the contents of a good third of the establishments in Connaught Avenue - the main shopping street. You also note that a number of potential shops are vacant. The charity and vacant shop fronts are a clear sign that something is wrong with the commercial district. I'm told that the problem is the landlord(s) prefer(s) to keep the rents high rather than lower them and see more shops, however the result, IMO, is that ever fewer shoppers bother to visit the place meaning that ever more shops decide to call it a day or move. Of course part of the problem is the decline in the spending power of much of the customer base (i.e the pensioners) has declined thanks to someone nicking £5B per year from UK pension funds. Another possible reason is that the local shopkeepers prefer not to have large chain shops in the place as competitors. I can see their point but I'm not sure that the other shopkeepers on Connaught Avenue have really thought this one through as the lack of such a chain could be reducing the total number of shoppers significantly.

Problem number 3 is the amount of infill development. In the US one sees estates of McMansions put up - vast houses with a minimum of garden. In Frinton we are seeing much the same because existing gardens are being developed so that there are now two (or more) houses where once there was but one. It is not clear to me whether this is being done by pensioners who need the capital and don't need the garden, ruthless speculators or some other group of people, however it is a problem because it gradually detracts from the quality of the place. Perhaps worse, once such a development has occured it cannot easily be reversed because house prices are sufficiently high that no one can afford to buy three adjacent houses and knock two of them down. If you want space you would do better to buy a villa on the Riviera, the Dordogne or in Chiantishire and one suspects that this is precisely what the richer newly retired do. This of course feeds into problem #2 because it means that the disposable income of the inhabitants is lower than it otherwise would be.

All together we have a more serious problems than the developments that which caused amusement last week. The radio station is harmless, the "live heavy metal concert" was attended by local schoolchildren; it finished at about 10:30 and I observed parents showing up in their Chelsea tractors to take their offspring to bed.

Meanwhile, however, my father reported that Problem #1 was being resolved by a police presence at the railway station and a selection of young things being held in temporary custody before being put back on the train to London. I'm not sure why the constabulary decided to act last Friday but one suspects that local press coverage had a certain impact. Whether local press will help to resolve the other problems, those of over-development and lack of shopping, is rather less clear. Of course it is entirely possible that I am overstating things. Frinton still has some sort of a future as a family beach holiday destination, but just as Easyjet and Ryanair make it easy for retirees to go aborad they do the same for family holiday makers. Frinton has, I think, become just the destination of families looking for a day trip as there are very few B&B's, hotels, guest houses etc.for the visitors to stay in.

03 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

The State of British News

So I'm back from my Blighty trip and able to have access to the internet - my dear parents do not have the internet in their fine establishment. In addition, since most of my trip was spent with the family, I did not purchase a newspaper but we did of course listen to the wonderful BBC Radio 4 news now and again.

In the both British and American parts of the blogosphere, the torygraph and the mail, one major story seems to have been the report that some schools have decided not to teach their pupils about the Nazi holocaust. [In the interests of full disclosire, it has to be said that I was never taught about the Holocaust when I was at school but I suspect that was due to my giving up history ASAP in order to concentrate on other subjects.] However despite this coverage I only learned about the scandal once I got back to France because the BBC seemed not to be giving the story much prominence. Possibly I'm doing the BBC a disservice as they do have it on their website but it certainly seemed that way.

On the other hand the BBC was all over the "Gordons Great Pensions Raid" story. I'm not sure that they did a good job of explaining why the tax change caused such a problem but they did at least let Kenneth Clarke explain that this was a stealth tax rise and the provide this long background piece which explains what the problem is. I don't think I agree with the entirety of the article which seems to think that taxes are good but it does sum up the problem well:

Or to put it another way, if the chancellor put an obstruction in the pensions road, he might have put a warning notice up, so unwitting drivers knew what to face.

But as it happened, anyone listening to his account of the tax change - and indeed, even the account given by Ed Balls this weekend - might have been forgiven for thinking it was simply designed to remove some technical distortions prevailing in the tax system.

In this the BBC is far better that Polly Pot who, as Tim W notes, seems to have forgotten the fact that the £5B taken was £5B per annum not just in 1997 and thus, given the magic of compound interest, means that over the last 10 years we are looking at about £100B of money the government has spent rather than the pensions industry. Now it is true that we all could have compensated for the chancellors grab by saving a but more, but in order to do so we would have had to not spend the £5B (more like £7B in 2007 terms) on other things like home improvements, holidays and all those other things that make the economy grow. My back of the envelope calculation is that £5-7B/year is 0.5% of UK GDP and thus had we saved enough to counter Mr Brown's stealth tax rise we would have seen UK GDP reduced by that amount each year. That is to say instead of the 2-4% GDP growth rates recorded we'd see 1.5%-3.5% GDP growth rates, rates that mean no real growth in GDP because they are about the same as the inflation rate.

Then there is the Iranian hostage crisis. Again it seems like the best and most original reporting comes from the blogosphere, in this case primarily the EU Referendum blog which has detailed one cock up after another bit also all sorts of people who have noted that Iran is violating the Geneva conventions, something that the BBC seems remarkably unwilling to draw attention to....

All in all I think it is fair to say that "could do better" would be the most optimistic way to grade recent performances

04 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

The Cambridge Networking Effect

This may possibly come across as snobbery. Or boasting. It isn't meant to be either. The excuse for my recent trip back to the UK was an alumni dinner at my old college in Cambridge (Magdalene). I don't know what other British colleges or universities do but Cambridge and Magdalene in particular have looked at what our American cousins do and copied their better ideas. The stated aim for this is to make the university independant of government funding for basic undergraduate teaching and thereby neatly sidestep any and all governmental intervention in their affairs. The problem was identified during the latter days of the conservative government but I think it is fair to say that it was given significant impetus once ZANU Labour started meddling.

Anyway the Magdalene alumni dinner is not just a posh dinner in hall (although there is indeed such a dinner) it also involves a short lecture by some Madgalene don on a subject that may be of interest. The Magdalene fellowship is actually rather strong at the moment and thus each of the last four years that I have attended I have been fascinated. In the past we've had lectures by Dr Eamonn Duffy on the contents of his recent books, on the sinking of Venice, on the socio-political background to Italian opera (trust me this was surprisingly interesting) and this year we had Sir John Gurdon giving us "Stem Cells for Dummies". As a regular reader of GNXP and other bioscience blogs (and someone who once worked for a biocatalysis/enzyme company) I ought to have know most of what he said before, but I didn't. Moreover he managed to explain the adult stem cells vs embyonic stem cells thing extraordinarily clearly and as a result a whole bunch of recent news and comment has started snapping into place. What he also did was explain very clearly were the ethical issues surrounding cloning and stem-cells and summarise the current state of the art - basically that there is a lot of work to do.

[Aside: One interesting thing is that I observed (again) the modesty of top scientists. Sir John mentioned that the first clones (of amphibians) were produced in the late 1950s but utterly failed to point out that he was the chap who did some of them. If you are interested then this is a great history of cloning with many quotes from Sir John and which explains who did what.]

Details of cloning and stem-cells may make their appearence in a subsequent post because this one is about something else. I was musing over the port about the strength of the collegiate system at Cambridge (and the Other Place) and it occured to me, and I doubt this is really an original thought, that governments and particularly control freak ones like ZANU Labour must absolutely hate them because they allow all sorts of extremely smart people to assemble in innocuous forms (e.g. alcohol fueled dinners) in relatively small numbers and potentially collude or conspire. I have no idea whether such collusion occurs but it could well.

Here's an example of how it might work. The instapundit notes that people are considering Letters of Marque for peace-keeping. Assuming the government doesn't like this much then the organizers would need to get their ducks in a row before going live. Using just the Magdalene reunions one could collect a large number of lawyers (including very senior judges, QCs etc.) to give legal advice on proposed mercenary peacekeepers, rich land owners and bankers who might finance them, a variety of former military folks who might help with the recruitment and leadership and numerous entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers and others who might supply, build or research some weapons for you if you wanted something a little different. And of course you could find marketing and advertising folks to work on the PR campaign you'd need, doctors to advise on matters medical and so on. There is even the possibility that senior international tranzi bureaucrats and/or opposition MPs could be brought into the picture to consult on international ramifications (although one might want to keep both of them out of the loop in this example).

Of course even if that example is a tad far fetched similar brainpower could be brought to bear on all sorts of government ideas from biometric ID cards to (as was discussed on Saturday) stealth tax rises.

05 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

Strikingly French

This news item (automatic english translation) got a giggle from me when I read it. It seems, and the picture on the right provides evidence that it is true, that the company who won the contract to stick up the official campaign posters for all candidates has gone on strike. As a result the official poster places in each municipality are very empty. I don't say that this is a great loss to be honest, the political posters are usually no more than a head, a trite slogan, and a party name so we really don't need them but somehow the whole thing seems remarkably typical of France.

Some candidates have got local supporters who have worked for them - in Mouans Sartoux that would be Marie-George Buffet (one of the commies),  Sarko and Sego. Amusingly in Mouans Sartoux it seems like the posters are being placed in approximate order of left/right wingness although Sarko is at the extreme right, a position I think he would prefer to relinquish to Jean-Marie Le Pen

PS Sometimes I love French names. Jean-Marie Le Pen is far right and male, Marie-George Buffet is far left and female. Both have those mixed gender names with a male bit and a female bit.

PPS on the subject of strikes EURSOC links to a Ross Clarke column where he praises French railways. Clearly Mr Clarke has never had to use them for work every day and dealt with the way the "workers" go on strike about once a month for one reason or another and thereby cause total transport chaos.

05 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

The Bush (Economic) Miracle

Courtesy of a comment at a post at the Economist's Free Exchange blog, I see a truly fascinating blog post about how much more successful GWB has been compared to his predecessor. It seems that under Bill Clinton US exports to China grew at an average annualized rate of 11.5% in his first term and 7.4% in his second one. Under GW Bush on the other hand exports to china have grown by 21.4% per annum. Ever so slightly more. In fact this leads on to a subsequent post at the same blog where the blogger gives a good and righteous smacking to the morons in congress who want to erect (more) protectionist trade barriers to stop chinese imports. The blogger has two fascinating graphs showing the growth of trade (in both directions) since 1985:

Value of U.S. Imports from China, and Doubling Periods, January 1985 to January 2007The logarithmic vertical scale may throw some off, but the growth of imports from China to the U.S. has grown exponentially in the recorded period, rising from 293.1 billion USD in January 1985 to 25,635 billion USD (or 25.6 trillion USD!) through January 2007.


Value of U.S. Exports to China, and Doubling Periods, January 1985 to January 2007[...]Here, we find that the value of what the U.S. exports to China has only fully doubled in value 3 times since January 2007[sic must mean 1985], rising from 319.2 billion USD in Janaury 1995 to 4,364 billion USD (4.3 trillion USD) in January 2007. What's really remarkable is the acceleration of the doubling rate clearly visible over the period from January 1985 through January 2007.

In other words while imports from china have grown exponentially their rate of growth has remained constant (imports doubling roughly every 42 months). On the other hand US exports to China, although starting at a higher point, started growng at a slower pace (indeed even declining) but their rate of growth has increased significantly going from a doubling in 10 years in the first decade to a doubling in 3 more recently. If the US rate of growth remains at 36 months then it won't be many years before the trade balance between the two nations is roughly equal or in the USA's favour.

Interestingly, according to the table on page 3 of this EU trade statistics PDF, in the period 2001-mid 2006, the EU's imports from China have increased at an average rate of 18%, similar to the USA rate, whereas the exports have changed at a Clinton era rate of 14% compared to a Bush era USA rate of 24%. I can't find anything much better than this PDF even thought page 4 of the same document is different and worse for the EU (a Yuan:Euro exhange rate issue?). Other documents I have found include this paper covering 2000-2004 with similar figures and this huge PDF with import and export data for 1995, 2000-2005 (PDF page 33/34) and elsewhere statistics for 1996-2005 (which again conflict somehow - exchange rates?). The EU's trade figures also seem to be remarkably volatile with both export and import rates swinginging dramatically year on year.

05 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

Is Art more valuable than Science?

A question from LovetoLead (via Tim W). My response

You have to be kidding!

Try living without the products of science or without the products of art for a year and see which you miss most.

No Science No computer or anything else powered by electrcity, including the phone, the fridge, the central heating and the cooker (anything more complicated than a barbecue or AGA will involve materials or techniques that were developed by scientists). No clothes other than those made from wool, cotton, silk or leather. No cars, trains, buses or even bicycles other than something like a penny farthing. Even things like plumbing and aluminium double glazing are out so you may need to move to a rather simpler house. Most food and almost all medicines have benefited from science so your diet is going to be rather uninteresting and you'd best not fall ill. On the other hand you can read nice old books, see old master paintings, opera, ballet, classical music and a whole variety of pre-19th century architecture. You should avert your eyes from modern coloured books, modern paintings (done with acrylic paints) and ignore all pop, rock or other electrically powered music.

No Art OK life is a bit boring what with no music, pictures, TV etc. but at least it is comfortable and, assuming you don't die of boredom, you'll probably reach 70 in fair health.

Vote for me on Love To Lead

05 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

Stem Cells and Public Opinion

If ever there was a topic where policy should not be made up by asking random people what they think then stem cell research is it. Oh sure I don't say that we should let only scientists make the choice, but I do think we should insist that the decision makers should actually understand the basics of what it is that are deciding on. I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of people, including almost all bloviating politicians, wouldn't know a stem cell from a hole in the head. Since politicians, advised by aides and unacountable bureaucrats, are now setting policy on what sorts of stem cell research is (or is not) permissible, they really ought to get a basic understanding before they pronounce.

In the UK the government is minded to ban "hybrid" stem cells because as the BBC and the Register report. From the BBC:

The government has proposed a ban because of what it has called "public unease". Opponents say there is "global" opposition to such research. [...]

After a public consultation, the government proposed an outright ban on hybrid embryos and is due to publish a draft Bill next month.

Here's the deal. I bet the "public" who were consulted had very little or no information on which to base their opinion because they don't really grasp what happens. As the register explains (better than the BBC IMO):

Hybrid embryos are created using cloning techniques to insert adult human DNA into an empty animal egg. Opposition from within government has cited unspecific "public unease" over the technique, which has angered scientists, who say the embryos are already not allowed to develop beyond 14 days under law, and would be used to develop therapeutic techniques rather than treat patients.

Many of us are uncomfortable with experimentation on human embryo stem cells - depending on how the embryos are obtained I am reasonably comfortable but there are undoubtendly potential experiments that I would oppose - but most of us have far less of a problem with either experimentation on animals or tests on human volunteers. A hybrid embyonic stem cell is essentially the animal embryo given the DNA of an adult human (probably the experimenter him/herself). The human donor has given his permission and the embryo is a non-viable collection of cells not much more complex than a yeast and Even strict vegans fail to get worked up about the deaths of yeasts, molds, bacteria that happen to be on the food they eat. In fact they don't get upset about the deaths of the occasional insect. Animal embryos less than 14 days old are far below insects in terms of their life lacking basic things like a nervous system, let alone a brain or a capability for response to any but the most basic stimuli. If you don't have a problem with the deaths of millions of yeast cells in the manufacture of the staples of life such as bread or beer then why would you care about a ball of cells being used to develop basic scientific knowledge?

But a few uneducated scare-mongerers can get this sort of thing banned because they don't explain the difference between research and treatment or between embryos and phoetuses. If you want to understand the current state of the art (more or less) then this PNAS article is a good start. If you want to see what sort of a mess uneducated scare mingerers canmake of perfectly valid science read this BBC article about plant grown insulin and (just for fun) compare it with this one about heart stem cells where no one seems to be complaining at all.

06 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

Friday Olive Tree Blogging

This olive tree in Cambridge holds the record for most northerly olive tree I have yet seen at (according to Wikipedia) 52° 12' 29" (or 34" according to my actual google map picture - see here). Admittedly it is in a pot and the probably take it in on frosty nights but it is about 9° (or 1000 km) further north than the Riviera which is already at the northern end of the normal olive habitat. By the way it is worth pointing out that (thanks to the Gulf Stream, I guess) temperate latitudes in Europe are far further north than they are in the Americas or East Asia. The Riviera is slightly further north than Boston and about the same latitude as Vladivostok while Goose Bay in Canada, at just over 53° north, is just about 80 miles (130km) more northerly than Cambridge.

As always click on the image to enlarge and do look at my other olive tree blogging photos if you missed them.

06 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

Scientific Consensus

As noted by Justin Levine over at Patterico and as reported by the BBC, and others, the "scientific consensus" on global warming is being held up by political haggling. As Justin comments sarcastically:

Now that sounds exactly like the kind of science I learned about in school - free from political considerations and biases…Can’t wait to read this ’scientific’ report.

There are about 5 related questions when it comes to global warming
  1. Is it happening?
  2. Is it caused by humans?
  3. Can we stop it?
  4. Should we stop it?
  5. Is what is currently proposed going to help?
There is consensus that the answer to 1 is "yes". However there is apparently little consensus about how much warming is occuring with notes that at various times in the geologically recent past (the medieval period and various times in the last few millenia) as well as at far earlier times, the earth has been hotter (sometimes a lot hotter) than it is now. In other words yes the earth probably is heating up but it is not, so far, looking like anything that the planet has not weathered before

This leads us on to question 2. The answer to this is a definite maybe. There is evidence that other planets in the solar system are also heating up indicating that the sun may be causing some or all of the rise. There is evidence that various gasses such as carbon dioxide and methane are implicated in temperature rises. There is evidence that humans have caused some part of the increase on carbon dioxide and methane within the atmosphere. There is considerable about whether these gasses are the prime cause of global warming and about how much of their rise is caused by human emissions.

Given the debate on question 2, it should come as no surprise that question 3 is generally speaking dodged. It is, however, a critical question. Whether or not global warming is caused by humans, excessive global warming will undoubtedly cause problems so we ought to see if we can try reversing it. Of course if the warming is cyclical and not caused by humans then we probably can't do anything about it anyway but even then we might be able to mitigate it a bit. And there is the question of how we would go about stopping it without killing the vast majority of subsistence farmers on the planet because they seem to cause much of the problem through agriculture (e.g. growing rice and herding cattle) and land clearence (burning forests).

On the other hand, and leading to question 4, as the Skeptical Environmentalist pointed out, it may be so herrendously expensive that a better way to spend our money would be to work out ways to improve the life of those adversely affected by it rather than trying to reverse it. Since these folks are also in general the subsistence farmers noted above probably the best way to help them would be to move them off the land and into cities. In other words the best way to help is probably to increase the development of poor nations and that comes at an increase in energy use and hence of increased industrial greenhouse gas emissions. By removing subsistence farmers from the land we may in fact end up reducing greeen house gasses because cash crop, intensive, agriculture is generally far more efficient and requires less land to provide equivalent food.

This brings us to question 5. Oddly enough politicians don't seem to mention making poor people richer as the best way to solve global warming. In fact the problem I have with global warming is that the politicians seem to be using it mostly as an excuse to put up taxes and for attacking global free trade and dynamic free-market economies such as America. None of these acts seems likely to actually solve the problem but they do have the effect of entrenching big government statist policies so I rather question whether the whole thing is not some scam by the supported of big government to convince the rest of us to go along with their socio-economic model.

06 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

Nonapologetic Apology

I have always felt that Private Eye has issued the best grovelling apologies for stories that M'learned friends have decided were excessively economical with the actualité, where they grovel for the wromg bits but somehow still manage to remind  you that other retails turned out to be true. However I may have found a challenger in this area as the Inquirer website produced a magnificent example yesterday:

THE INQUIRER wishes to apologise unreservedly for the story we published on Tuesday March 27, 2007 in which we stated that the Halifax Bank was writing to its customers to advise them that details of their accounts had been stolen.

We now accept that this story was factually incorrect in that, while the confidential data had indeed been stolen, no such letter was sent.

Correspondence seen by The Inquirer reveals that the stolen briefcase containing data on 13,000 mortgage customers has been recovered unopened and the bank has decided it's not necessary to let customers know that the theft happened and doesn't wish to cause them worry by informing them of the fact that its employees routinely carry detailed listings of customers' financial affairs around with them in an extremely insecure manner.

So that's alright then.

06 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

Sugar Batteries

All the Independent (and other greenies) who have recently been bitching about biofuels may now have to rethink. Thanks to reading this week's Cringely column, I have learned that a smart (lady) chemist called Shelley Minteer and her research group in St Loius have announced a fuel cell that runs on sugar (and in fact not just one sort of sugar but a wide variety of sugars and plant saps).

“This study shows that renewable fuels can be directly employed in batteries at room temperature to lead to more energy-efficient battery technology than metal-based approaches,” says study leader Shelley Minteer, Ph.D., an electrochemist at Saint Louis University. “It demonstrates that by bridging biology and chemistry, we can build a better battery that’s also cleaner for the environment.”

Using sugar for fuel is not a new concept: Sugar in the form of glucose supplies the energy needs of all living things. While nature has figured out how to harness this energy efficiently, scientists only recently have learned how to unleash the energy-dense power of sugar to produce electricity, Minteer says.

A few other researchers also have developed fuel cell batteries that run on sugar, but Minteer claims that her version is the longest-lasting and most powerful of its type to date. As proof of concept, she has used a small prototype of the battery (about the size of a postage stamp) to successfully run a handheld calculator. If the battery continues to show promise during further testing and refinement, it could be ready for commercialization in three to five years, she estimates.

By removing the sugar to ethanol conversion step that ethanol powered engines need she must vastly improve the efficiency of the total process. In addition her fuel cell produces electricity rather than the heat/motion that ethanol engines make and hence the process can be used for more than just driving, although given that fuel cell cars are being prototyped it can be used for that too.

Assuming this scales up well and that the development gets proper funding (likely since the US military has taken interest in it), this could be the first step towards weaning humanity off fossil fuels. Although I am somewhat of a global warming skeptic I'm all in favour of weaning humanity from fossil fuels because it will remove the monetary prop for a large number of unpleasant regimes and it allows said fuels to be used only where they are the most appropriate, such as the manufacture of plastics.

The next step - which is also likely to be best performed using an enzymatic approach - will be to create something that can turn celluloses and starches into sugars. When that happens everyone's lawn-clippings, not to mention the stubble and straw produced by farmers as well as products which grow in the cold (e.g. potatoes or sugar beet) can all be used to make electricity. In fact I guess sugar beet can already be so used because we know how to (fairly inefficiently) turn sugar beet into sugar.

07 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

The Ultimate Bible Quiz

Thanks to Razib at GNXP I present the Ultimate Bible Quiz. It seems suitable for all at this time of year so go try it and see if you can beat my total:
You know the Bible 97%!

Wow! You are awesome! You are a true Biblical scholar, not just a hearer but a personal reader! The books, the characters, the events, the verses - you know it all! You are fantastic!

Ultimate Bible Quiz
Create MySpace Quizzes

I don't actually think it is that "ultimate", I haven't opened a bible properly for about 20 years and Razib, who IIRC is a lapsed muslim, managed 86%. But it's fun none the less.

11 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

Stem Cell Errors

Recently I wrote about how stem cell research is one of the areas that people don't grok properly. A good example of this is the coverage of the diabetes results today. The BBC and the Times both mae misleading statements. The BBC explains:

Stem cells are immature cells which can become different types of adult tissue.

and the Times similarly says:

Stem cells are immature, unprogrammed cells that have the ability to grow into different kinds of tissue and can be sourced from people of all ages.

The Times article then goes on to make what Tim W perceives as a gratuitous swipe at President Bush by bringing up the embryonic stem cell issue. I agree with Tim that if you are going to mention Bush's ban on federal stem cell funding it helps if you get the details right. i.e. mention that the ban is merely on the federal funding of research. However Tim does get a bit confused here:

It might also be worth noting a further fact. The phrase "most versatile" is as yet unproven. There are as yet no treatments at all that stem from (sorry) embryonic stem cells, but there are as above, some very interesting ones from adult lines. We might yet find out that adult line sare indeed more versatile, especially when we consider the subject of rejection.

No one has yet identified any adult stem cell that can create all cell types. This is precisely what both Auntie and the Wapping Liar get wrong or at least make it so that a casuak reader will misunderstand. Adult stem cells can only produce a handful of cell types, in almost all cases just one cell type, so if you harvest pancreatic stem cells (say) then you won't be able to grow bone marrow or heart muscle from them. On the other hand embryonic stem cells can actually make any sort of cell so that in theory an embryonic stem cell could be used to make any part of the body from brain to toenail. This fact (the abaility of embryonic stem cells to make anything but adult ones to only make limited sorts of cells) has been demonstrated all over the place in scientitic literature and was one of the reasons why the ability to clone entire organisms by inserting their DNA into a denuclearized embryo was such a surprise. In fact IIRC part of the problem with adult stem cells is that we haven't yet identified stem cells for every cell type. Another problem is that some stem cells are hard to get at. E.g. the brain stem cells appear to live in the middle of the brain so getting access to them without harming the rest of the brain is a non-trivial exercise.

Now there is another problem which the science writers don't mention: namely that outside of the embryo, where all cells are stem cells, no one has developed a way to identify stem cells from their non-stem neighbours other than by observing that they can split and produce new cells apparently infinitely.

The result of these facts is that if it were possible (from both a tehnical and ethical POV) to obtain embyonic cells which could be given the nucleus of an adult cell and then grown to make arbitrary adult cells rather than an entire embryo this would seem to be a better course of action than hunting around for the right sort of adult stem cell. However no one has yet got beyond some very basic levels of research when it comes to embryonic stem cells so no one knows how feasible this is let alone whether it has unfortunate side effects. We do know that clones that are born seem to exhibit abnormalities but no one knows whether this is due to the way they are created (there are tens if not hundreds of failed attempts for every viable clone produced as it is anyway) or something inherent to the adult DNA that they have received.

On the other hand despite some recent successes in isolating adult stem cells and creating and implanting tissue from them we don't know whether these techniques are any good either. They may work but we simply haven't done enough tests to know if the inserted cells do end up helping the body or not and if they do for how long this period lasts. Neither this diabetes treatment nor the heart stem cell stuff from last week is ready to graduate from the laboratory trial yet.

In fact we have a lot of research to do on the whole stem cell process and all sorts of stem cells which is why I think that President Bush's funding ban was counterproductive. We simply don't know enough to know what works and what doesn't.

12 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

Kurt Vonnegut RIP

The BBC and others are reporting that author Kurt Vonnegut has died. I haven't read a lot of his work and I definitely haven't read the one everyone had heard of - Slaughterhouse Five - so I'm not sure I can judge his worth as a writer. I do hope that people re-read the one short story of his that really sticks in my mind though - Harrison Bergeron - because it pokes such excellent holes in the dogma of diversity and political correctness, despite havng been written in 1961 when such nutty notions barely existed. The good news is that Harrison Bergeron is available free at the link above to go and read it and then drink a toast in his honnour.

12 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

It's Not The Crime It's The Coverup

The Instapundit reports that a recruitment company called JL Kirk is upset with a blogger who thought they were more likely to con job-seekers out of money than get them a new job that they have called in Messrs Sue Grabbit & Runne. Now not being a Tennessee resident I had never heard of JL Kirk before so I have no idea if her original post (in February) was a big google hit or not but I can say that many bloggers and internet sites have picked up on the post now that the legal team has been brought in. All this publicity means that while google searches for "JL Kirk" have the company website at the top, search results 3-(some large number) are all about how JL Kirk are a bunch of con artists with something to hide. [Aside: logical searches such as "JL Kirk recruitment" or "JL Kirk headhunter" don't have the company website visible on the first page of google results at all which makes me think that the company really hasn't thought about search engine optimization]

I don't know whether the blogger libelled JL Kirk or not in a legal sense, but in the court of public opinion I think it is pretty clear that she did no more than anyone might do if they were upset with an organization. She reported a set of facts that seemed to indicate that something was a little odd and then, very clearly, drew some fairly logical conclusions and gave her opinion of the company based on her conclusions. The lawyers letter stating four things that they found particularly upsetting seems to demonstrate the weakness of the case:
  1. JL Kirk Associates “…was formerly Bernald Haldane before it was purchased by Mr. Kirk Leipzig.”
  2. That JL Kirk Associates personnel “use fear to motivate” potential clients to pay for services “without question and without the possibility of a refund.”
  3. That, during your interview with your husband, there were questions “designed to help [you] as the insecure wife put more economic pressure” on your husband.
  4. That the amount you were asked to pay “neatly” coincided with your tax refund “which is a matter of public record.”
Oddly a JK Kirk employ seems to directly contradict statement 1 in her response:

Mr. Kirk purchased the remaining assets of the BH organization here in Brentwood, changed the philosophy, company mission, replaced every BH employee, and put his name of the door!

I suppose there may be a technical difference between the statement made by the original blogger and the statement made by the employee but to a lay mind they sound remarkably similar.Statements 2 and 3 sound like opinion and while it is true they aren't hedged about with "it seems to me"s or "appears to" or other weasel words when you read them. Statement 4 is plain silly.

So as a result of legal action a post that was made at the end of february and would most likely have disappeared into the mass of the Internet has now been revived and given more publicity. Even if the legal action has merit the attendant publicity would seem to have done far more damage to JL Kirk than simply ignoring the post, or maybe just replying on the blog as first happened.


Oh and I have no hesitation in saying that whether or not JL Kirk are well-intentioned or not the whole thing reminds me strongly of the agent and vanity publishing scammers who take aspiring authors to the cleaners. The rule in publishing is that money only flows to the author so if you have to pay for the service then its probably a scam, methinks much the same applies logic here. If a head hunter is unwilling (or unable) to get a recruitment fee paid for by the company then there seems to be no objection to it taking some sort of agent's fee from the salary of the new employee, but asking for an up front payment definitely sets all sorts of alarm bells ringing.

13 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

Friday Olive Tree Blogging

An odd one this. Some branches have recently died off, while others right next door to them are flourishing with new shoots. You can see this in the close up photo where there are some lighter green leaves here and there. At first I thought this was merely an example of botched pruning where the pruner had left a few of the cut branches in the tree but that does not appear to be the case as the dead bits are clearly attached to the rest of the tree. Since I go past this young tree quite frequently on my way into the village to buy bread I'll see what happens over the next few months.

As ever you can click on the photos to see them enlarged and take a look at previous Friday olive tree blogging images if you missed them.

13 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

The Broken Book Market - Exhibit 51

The Instapundit and spouse had a podcast where in part, they interviewed Mischa Berlinski, author of a new book about missionaries, anthropologists and primitive tribes - Fieldwork.

I listened to the podcast with interest and thought that it might be an interesting book to pick up, if I happened to see it in a bookstore at the right price etc. It seems I was right about the interesting part, no less a writer than Stephen King has written that it is the sort of book that keeps you reading past midnight. Unfortunately that article is also exhibit 51 for the idiocies of publishers:

If this is such a good read, what's the bad news? That's easy. As of March 26, Fieldwork was No. 24,571 on the Amazon best-seller list, and not apt to go much higher. The reason why is illustrative of how the book biz became the invalid of the entertainment industry, and why fiction sales are down across the board (with the possible exception of chick lit). Critics, with their stubborn insistence that there's a difference between ''literature'' and ''popular fiction,'' are part of the problem, but the publishers themselves, who have bought into this elitist twaddle, are also to blame.

[...]Fieldwork's cover is a green smear (probably jungle) and a gray smear (probably sky). It communicates nothing.

Or take the titles[...] Fieldwork could be a treatise on farming. In his acknowledgments, Berlinski tells us the editor hung that says-nothing title on the book. The guy should have stuck to editing.

I picked Fieldwork up because I saw interesting words on the flap (fascination, taboo, sexual), but when I think about how close I came to passing it by, I just get mad. As it was, I grabbed it on impulse, thinking: I know you don't want me to buy you, you dull-looking thing, but I'm going to. Just to spite you.

Why, why, why would a company publish a book this good and then practically demand that people not read it? Why should this book go to waste? Is it because there are people in publishing who believe that readers who liked The Memory Keeper's Daughter are too dumb to enjoy a killer novel like Fieldwork? If so, shame on them for their elitism. Hey, guys, why not put the heroine on the jacket? Martiya in the jungle at night, or embracing her lover, or dancing with the native tribe of which she almost becomes a member? In other words, why not actually sell this baby a little?

Yes even mega authors like Stephen King do judge a book by its cover. And tend to let the boring ones, or the one that look terribly arty farty pass them by, especially when what they want is some sort of literary comfort food.

King stops there but I'll add a bit of my own additional reasons for not buying. The book is a hardback and has a list price of $24 and Amazon and co sell it for at a discounted $17 or so. This is Mischa's first book so he doesn't have much of a reputation. He has a website with the first few chapters online, but his publisher's website (with statements like "Copyright ©2001-2003 Farrar, Straus and Giroux" on the search page) doesn't make its page about the book easy to find - if I didn't know it was there I doubt I'd find it - or contain much information about it.

My biggest gripe is the hardback price. As Eric Flint has written in his various DRM essays at Jim Baen's Universe $24 or even $17 is a fairly serious chunk of disposable income for many would be readers, and unless they have read excepts, positive reviews etc. are unlikely to make this an impulse buy. If the cover is crap then the impulse buy sales are going to drop further and hence sales of this book are unlikely to be large unless the book or author gets some publicity such as being picked up by Oprah. This is really bad for the author because publishers are pretty ruthless about pruning writers who don't sell and once pruned you rarely get a second chance. It is well known that most publishers lose money or barely break even on most of the books the publish, and that they are particularly prone to losing money on new authors. It seems to me that they don't do themselves any favours here. A new author is a risk. In other fields of commerce you compensate the buyer for taking the risk by lowering the price and then, once he's hooked you raise the price on the next ones. In publishing its the other way around. You have a high price to begin with, then if that is successful in attarcting a few readers you lower the price by reprinting the book as a paperback. This may make sense for well-known authors where you are charging people a premium for reading the book sooner, but it makes no sense at all for authors who have no track record. These new authors need publicity and new readers, soemthing they are much more likely to get with a flashy paperback priced at $6.99 than a $23.99 hardback with a "cool" cover.

Oh and if you don't like the idea of a paperback how about copying Baen and simultaneously releasing the book as a cheap ($5 or $6) ebook as well as a hard cover? The incremental cost to produce the ebook (assuming you don't have to pay some silly fee because you insist on an expensive DRM technology) is close to 0 because all the expensive bits (editing, proof reading) are already done for the paper version and thus any sales you get from it are going to be nearly 100% pure profit. The fear stated by publishers is always that a DRM-free eBook will be pirated so much that it will impact paper sales. This is so wrong as to be basically laughable. Charlie Stross's rant about the broken eBook market explains why in fact some piracy is actually good and nothing more than the elecrtonic equivalent of lending a book to a friend or borrowing it from the library in the paper world. In both cases the benefits (basically due to growth in numbers of readers) are perceived to outweight the fatc that the secondary readers don't pay for the book. The same applies to eBooks with an additional benefit: given that eBooks are a lot less conveinet to read, people who read a cheap eBook and really enjoy it are likely to then plunk down the $24 to have it in more permenant and easier to read hardback format.

Update: Welcome Instapundit readers - do please take a look at some of my other recent posts such as the one about Todd Goldman and this eBook followup post

13 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

I Can Tell Your Art Is Stolen

Todd Goldman's plagiarism
Various places on the Internet such as the BEAT (twice) and the Something Awful fora, are reporting that Todd Goldman, famous for artwork like "I can tell your bag is fake" and "Boys are stupid" which he has turned into a major brand with lots of T Shirts and high priced signed copies, copied a number of his picture concepts from other people. As a version linked to from the BEAT explains:

Today’s case involves Todd Goldman of David & Goliath clothing and accessories company. Goldman’s work is distributed worldwide through his company and art galleries. It is called “deceptively simple” in a recent press release for his show Gold Digger, currently on exhibit at Jack Gallery in Los Angeles, but the word deceptive apparently goes a bit deeper.

Web cartoonist Dave Kelly created a drawing about five years ago of one of his characters, Purple Pussy, praying at bedside, “Dear God, Make everyone die. Amen.” Goldman has a nearly identical piece in Gold Digger which he’s selling as if it’s his original creation (see for yourself.) This isn’t his only rendition of the piece he copied. There’s another more direct rip-off here. Calls to the gallery for comment were forwarded to a surely over-worked and under-whelmed vice-president at the parent company of the gallery who has yet to respond.

As related here his actions after being called on this showed that he is indeed a quality sort of guy by sending those who emailed him this quality reply:
Thanks for the inquiryŠ

Here's my inspiration! Every month I paint the works of a pedophile. This week, I chose the work of Dave Kelly, he's a huge infantilist furry. This is someone who draws baby anthropomorphic animals either wetting themselves or jacking off. I'm not kidding. Once again, his name is Dave Kelly and this is his FTP full of his lovely art, there are even some photos of the artist himself, handsome fellow isn¹t he?


Next month, please look for my special pedophile/serial killer series when I recreate the works of Jeffrey Dahmer.

Once again thanks for your support and please help me with my cause by spreading the word and showing the world just how creative pedophiles can be.

Do it for the kids.


I'd suggest not buying any artwork from Mr Goldman or any products from his David & Goliath company. And even though his D&G bio says to email him if you want to call him a jerk I think you might do better to contact those who give him other jobs (his art gallery - Jack Gallery/s2Art seems to have already removed his pages although they do have a few of his cartoons in the flash animation on the home page) such as Seventeen Magazine and what ever cmpany was giving him a TV cartoon series.

13 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

There's No Demand For eBooks?

Over at the Charlie Stross ebook rant an agent called Donald Maass makes a very negative comment which I think is flat out wrong.

He makes 6 points and I'm going to argue about almost all of them but not in order. His last point is:

6) I note only one area in which e-books have been successful, erotica, and that "success" is only anecdotal.

Given how porn has driven most other electronic formats for things, this point means to me that yes actually there is a significant potential eBook market. But critically it is likely to be a different one to that for printed books in just the same way that electronic porn is different to playboy magazines.

Going backwards we then come to

5) E-books are about as useful to fiction authors as print advertising or self-promotion, which is to say their benefit is marginal.

Eric Flint would disagree with you strongly about this see his recent article at JBU as one example.
I put up one of my own novels for free. "Pirated myself," if you'll allow me the absurd expression. That novel, Mother of Demons, has been available online for free for almost seven years now. And . . .

It's still in print, and still keeps selling.

Soon thereafter, with Jim Baen's cooperation, we set up the Baen Free Library on Baen Books' Web site, which now has dozens of titles from many authors available at no cost to anyone who wants them. (If you're not familiar with the Library, you can find it by going to Baen Books Web site—www.baen.com—and selecting "Free Library" from the left side of the menu across the top.

The titles are not only made available free, they are completely unencrypted—in fact, we'll provide you, free of charge, whatever software you'd prefer to download the texts. We make them available in five different formats.

And . . .

The sky did not fall. To the contrary, many of those books have remained in print and continued to be profitable for the publishers and paying royalties to the authors. For years, now, in some cases. Included among them is my own most popular title, 1632. I put that novel up in the Baen Library back in 2001—six years ago. At the time, the novel had sold about 30,000 copies in paperback.

Today, six years after I "pirated" myself, the novel has sold over 100,000 copies.
Anecdotally I should point out that it is entirely due to eBooks and the Baen Free Library that I increased my spending on SF. Unless Donald represents a Baen author though it is highly unlikely that he has seen a penny of it because the increase has gone almost exclusively to Baen. I buy paperbacks from non Baen publishers about as frequently as I did before, but in addition I spend at least $15 a month on Baen Webscription eBooks and JBU (in 2007 I'd estimate that it is more than double that figure so far because of eARCs and the Liaden book packages).

This also addresses Donald's points 3) and 4)

3) You are right, Charles, in that high pricing is an impediment to people using e-books. What price threshold works? You've already said it: free.

4) I agree that giving away free e-books does no harm. However, I question whether it does any good. I have seen little to no evidence that promotional e-books sell more "dead tree" units.

I'm happy paying $5 for an eBook. I will pay $7.99 or so if pushed but except for Eric Flint's Arkansas War and David Weber's Off Armageddon Reef I'm not paying more than that for an eBook. Evidence above and elsewhere in the Baen publishing world shows that
  1. Many people will pay for an eBook. Ok so it may not be millions of people but, as Jim Baen said before he died, Baen makes more money through eBooks than it does from Canada
  2. Free eBooks are a great way to build awareness. The only reason why I started reading a whole load of Baen authors and I don't for one moment believe I am alone in that.
And that then leads us to point 2)

2) Blaming publishers, copyright law, ecryption, fear of change or anything else for the failure of e-books is a crock. Publishers and authors alike would LOVE to make more money.

 If publishers are so keen to make money why the (expletive) don't they copy Baen and publish DRM-free ebook versions of their books. As I just wrote earlier today, the marginal cost of creating a DRM-free ebook approaches zero. I'm sure someone in Baen can give more accurate figures about the work required but my guess is that going from the final RTF manuscript that is going to be typeset to the average eBook format is little more than running a script/batchfile and checking the result for sanity. If you are right and there is no market for eBooks but that they are harmless and may help promotion then adding this almost cost free step should be a no-brainer for the marketing department. If you are wrong and there is a market then failing to add this almost cost free step is tantamount to leaving money lying on the ground. Either way there seems to be no logical reason not to do so unless publishers are in fact run by clueless, risk-averse lawyers and accountants.

Which leaves us with

1) Better devices and downloading are not going to change anything. Consumers don't like to read e-books, at least not in big numbers. Period. Consider: iPods aren't cheap, had all the same issues and yet they took off.

That is just wrong. iPods were launched in 2001. MP3 music via napster and co was available in 1999 and was wildly popular; iPods took off because they were very well marketed by Apple. Sure it helped that there was a large exisiting base of content and they presented a number of design features that users saw benefit in, but Apple's marketing really really helped kick the market. There is probably sufficient eBook content now available so if Apple or someone came up with a marketing blitz for an eBook reader I expect it would be successful. So far though no one, not even Sony, has really pushed eBook readers.

Having said all of that though, I do agree with the conclusion he makes after his 6 points:

CONCLUSION: Sorry, but e-books are not now and never will be a magic bullet. Great stories coupled with great writing are still the only means to success.

That has been true since the campfire and will be true when "content" is beamed straight into our brains.

The point is that eBooks may help grow the demand for "[g]reat stories coupled with great writing" so that the market for fiction grows instead of shrinks the way it seems to be doing now.

18 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

Arm the Ladies

There doesn't seem to be much point in my blogging about the Virginia Tech tragedy directly - after all I'm not in America, know no one in Virginia etc. etc. - so instead I thought I might work my way through some of the arguments for/against controlling guns.

Firstly there is the obvious point that while gun control is designed to keep guns from "bad people" who wish to use these weapons to cimmit crimes it also impacts all those "good people" who just want to go target shooting, be able to defend themselves if attacked, go hunting etc. The standard argument, and I have some sympathy with it, says that very few "good people" need guns and therefore banning them does little more than inconvenience a few farmers and a couple of olympic sports. The problem is that banning guns does not magically get all the guns to disappear as, althouh all the guns owned by "good people" are handed in, very few guns owned by "bad people" are. Since this agument and counter argument is is well known and has been repeated in various ways every time some sort of gun crime grabs public attention I shall not bother to go over that well tilled soil but rather look at some of the underlying issues.

Firstly there is the problem with defining "bad people". As I see it there are basically three main categories of bad people who commit gun crimes, and any strategy to stop them needs to take all three into consideration.
  1. Psycho nutters. The ones that get the headlines by going out and killing a number of innocents
  2. Terrorists and others who perceive themselves as fighting a war against society
  3. Criminals who use guns as a part of their daily business from bank robbing to selling dugs to intimidation to contract killing
There may be overlap between these three categories but in general they are separate.

Group 1 is frequently affected by gun control. On the other hand group 1 is also the group that tends to provide the biggest impetus for more gun control because the nutters who make up group 1 are the ones who kill random strangers for little or no reason anyone else can understand. Many of these people are known to have psychological problems or other issues with relating to how they interact with the world. Group 1 therefore includes the stalkers or jilted ex-spouses or lovers who decide that they need to kill their former lover and/or his/her new love. Banning guns may reduce mass shooting sprees, and may reduce some "crimes of passion", but there are plenty of disturbed people who kill their victims in other ways. And of course banning guns makes it harder for the "good people" who are their victims to defend themselves.

Group 2 usually have enough back up from places where guns are common that if they want a gun they can get it. Sure the ready availability of guns may make things easier but if you are dedicated to the "cause" then you are unlikely to be too bothered by the risks involved in smuggling a firearm across a border. The fact that UK based Islamic terrorists seem not t ohave done this appears to me to be more due to the fact that they figure they can do more damage more easily using explosives than they can using aimed firearms.

Group 3 are the most common gun-criminals. Because they seem gun usage as primarily a business tool they tend not to kill too many innocents so they rarely make the headlines. Gun control may stop some group three members from getting hold of firearms but it won't stop the hardened pros and it mostly doesn't matter because gun control means that they need have less fear that someone they are attacking or threatening may turn out to be armed.

So gun control probably reduces the number of gun-victims killed by group one (and may reduce the total number of murders from tis group) but has little effect on groups two and three except to make it easier for them to commit other crimes by threatening (or carrying out threats on) "good people" that they can expect to be unarmed.

So what about the victims? Group one's victims are at least 50% female while the make up of group one is almost exclusively male. Training and arming most or all women would at least allow the victim class a chance to fight back. Unfortunately at least some killers would simply take the gun from their victim and use it on the victim so simply arming all women would not stop group one completely. On the other hand it seems unlikely to do much harm. Since women are weaker than men in most cases when neither party has a gun most men can subdue and kill most women. In the rarer shooting spree cases, if a woman had her weapon stolen by the killer the chances are that some other woman would either shoot him herself or hand her weapon over to some husky man to use on her behalf. Either way, rather than being helpless and at the mercy of their killers, the people being attacked would probably be able to counterattack.

The victims of group two are pretty much random groups of people and hence likely to include women. There are some female members of group two but not many so as with group one arming women would probably induce the group two folks to find a different way to kill - something that they seem quite willing to do anyway.

Group three's victims often include women, along with elderly folks and others who are weaker than the criminals. Group three's victims also include members of group three (i.e. they frequently kill fellow killers) and group three does have a numnber of female members - although going on prison populations the majority of group three seems to be male. Thus arming the ladies will not of itself stop all group three deaths although it may well reduce a number of related crimes such as rape. Rapists of all kinds, from date rapers to the serial rapists who haunt parks and dark streets, might well wonder whether it was not better to surf the internet for porn than to actually risk assaulting a woman who probably has a gun.

All in all it seems to me that, even if you decide to prohibit the men from being also armed, arming the ladies would be a good thing with little downside and lots of probably upside.

18 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

The Sarko Referendum Approaches

The opinion polls are becoming more confused, the media is getting more excited and the voters are probably getting more confused but round one of the referendum on whether France wants Sarkozy as president is approaching. For those of my readers who haven't got all the background, EURSOC, in addition to its own commentry, links to this excellent and lengthy New Yorker piece about the major candidates. As I have said before Sarko is far from perfect. He is not going to noticeably reduce the size or impact of the French state on its citizens - he may prune parts of it but he is highly unlikely to perform major surgery - and he is unlikely to produce major economic reform. However it is certain that, unlike Chirac, Mitterand or any of the other candidates in 2007, he is going to be an active, possibly hyperactive, president.

The question is whether a majority of French voters want such an active president. When it was Sego vs Sarko the choice was clear. Even in the mess of polls in recent days it is clear that in a second round contest Sarko beats Sego. He also, for what it is worth, beats Le Pen. The problem is whether one of those two are the other front runner in the second round. It is possible the Sarko will not make it to round two but I think it unlikely. The general unity of the "right" and the fractiousness of the "left" mean that it is unlikley that he will come third in Sunday's election. Having said that I agree with Simon Heffer (H/t the EU Referendum blog) that

Th[e voters], however, may yet cast their votes in a way that makes a mockery of the current opinion poll findings, and deliver an entirely unpredictable outcome to what has been an entirely (and, for those concerned, often frustratingly) unpredictable election.

To go back to Sarko or not. At the first round he merely needs more than about a quarter of the vote to be sure of getting through to round two. Let me explain: Le Pen and the loony left fringe candidates combined will get around 25% of the votes cast. This means that the remaining 75% or so will be split between Sarko, Sego and Bayrou. If he gets more than a third of that amount (i.e. more than 25% of the total) he will be in at least second place and hence able to go through to round two.

Assuming the opinion polls are not utter fantasy this should be easy. Sarko has been the front runner in the first round for months and has never been below about 27-28% support. Most of the polls put him higher and there seems to be some evidence that some of the undecided voters are actually Sarko supporters who are embarassed to admit it - similar to the way that English voters lied about their suppport for Mrs T. Although it is also worth noting tat Simon Heffer points out that Le Pen may also see a rise in actual votes at Sarko's expense for much the same reason.

All this first round will prove though is that Sarko is acceptable to between a quarter and  a third of the voters. It is the second round where the real referendum starts. In round two he needs to attract the 13-15% of the electorate who will probably vote for Le Pen as well as some other votes. This is where the question of the other runner is key. If Sego is the other candidate than he is safe because her vacuity scares a lot of people but that is not the case for Bayrou. Given a choice of Bayrou or Sarko we've seen a lot of polls that show that Sarko gets about 45% of the vote (i.e. his own ~30% plus Le Pen's 15%) and Bayrou gets everyone else.

18 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

World Publics Strongly Favor Bad English

For some reason the folks at PIPA have put me on their spam list for press releases. Most of them seem to be about survey which seem to be ever so slightly slanted in one particular direction and I file them in the electronic circular filing cabinet without reading. But the title of one led me to glance at the last few and see sentences like
Just one question. What is a public? and where can I find one to ask it questions?

19 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

Manga Funeral

Just when you think things can't get weirder they do. I didn't quite check the date here to make sure I was not victim of an April fools hoax but I probably would have had my wife confirmed that yes this was a genuine story and found a numebr of Japanese sites to confirm it.

Yes in Japan more than 2000 people went to a funeral ... to the finctional villain of a long-running manga series. The Wapping Liar link above has more details but in essence the funeral rite was exactly the same as if a real person had diad and included speeches by his nearest and dearest (i.e. the artist). I thought it was weird enough how people grieved about Princess Di 10 years ago but at least she was a real person. This funeral is about a fictional character and a villain to boot.

19 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

The Broken Book Market - Exhibit 52a

In the comments to my previous rant on this subject, there was a comment by Dave which explained that I was not competely correct when I said that "It is well known that most publishers lose money or barely break even on most of the books the publish". Dave's comment points out that publishers have a reasonable amount of fixed costs no matter how many books they sell and that therefore if the bestseller pays those bills then any income they get from other books they publish is gravy that can be used to promote the block busters so long as the book covers its raw costs (i.e. paper, typesetting, printing etc.).

This is a valid point and one that I believe I have heard described as the Patrick Nielsen Hayden "jars of mustard" analogy. One recent recounting of it at Baen's bar goes like this:

[T]he publishers, now big New York corporations with hefty bills to pay, began to see that the big money was in the blockbusters. The midlist books were, in PNH's famous phrase, "jars of mustard"; interchangeable and therefore something to be purchased as cheaply as possible. Anyone with a taste for mustard will buy the stuff; it's an income stream that requires very little in the way of support. And the income from that stream could then be used to purchase Important Books and mega-advertising campaigns geared toward making the publishers Big Buck$.

This also explains why the big publishers mostly don't bother to promote their "jars of mustard". If an author is lucky and hits it big then the big publisher isn't going to complain but it sees no point in spending more than the minimum to get the book selling because its return on investment is so much better plugging the blockbusters.

However it isn't just the publishers who think this way, the large bookstore chains do too. On another bit of Baen's bar one of the Baen's newest authors, Stoney Compton, noted that his book, which is jolly good IMO, was not being taken up by his local store.

This is somewhat frustrating. I went into a Barnes & Noble, which is all of a half block from where I work in Bellevue, WA to "see" the novel on a bookstore shelf. (Hey, it's my first novel - you'd do the same thing!)

It wasn't there.

So I went to the little reference desk and asked the young woman if they were going to carry the novel. She tapped on her keyboard, stared into the screen and said: "Not we're not going to carry that. We've had a lot of people ask about it."

I'm usually not at a loss for words.

Finally I said, "Well, I wrote that novel. I work less than a block from here. In my office are over 130 people who will probably buy the book simply because they like me. If they can't find it here, they will buy it online at Amazon.com, not Barnes & Noble.com."

She looked at me and said, "Yeah?"

Then I had to leave so I wouldn't break any laws or necks. [...]

I would appreciate any insight as to B&N's strange take on deferred guarenteed sales.

Good luck in finding my book anywhere other than online.

And thank you for looking!

From the responses from others (including author Dave Freer) to his rant this seems to be not uncommon. The chain bookstores do indeed treat books like mustard and don't care much about local tastes or desires. I'm not sure what the fix is, other than taking my approach and buying ebooks or via Amazon, but it seems to be pretty stupid. The fact that pundits then complain that people (children) are reading less or nothing more than bestsellers now looks like less of a shock than it might otherwise seem.

If it takes effort to do something then many people won't bother. If you want people to read books then it would help if you helped make books available in easy to buy forms at convenient locations; otherwise guess what? people won't buy them. They'll buy magazines or DVDs or something instead. Those of us who care can keep our favourite authors going by ordering their books in shops or buying them on line but neither of these activities helps get the word out properly. Interestingly, as Stoney's comment shows, even the trick that many authors ask their fans to do, namely preordering the book, doesn't seem to always do the job.

I don't know what the future of books and particularly the future of genre fiction is going to be, but I am certain that the book trade as it is currently formed is going to collapse. Treating your customers like dirt and your product with cynical disdain has hurt any number of retailers (British readers may recall the accidental frankness of Gerald Ratner) and when almost the whole chain from production to distribution gets that way, which seems to be the case with the book trade, then it is unlikely that it can recover.

On the other hand though the entrepreneurial side of me is convinced that somewhere in the wreckage there must be a major opportunity. Some of the biggest selling books (e.g. Harry Potter) are classic genre fiction so there is clearly demand for the product when it is made available and marketed properly. Anyone with a few million to invest should contact me and I'll come up with a business plan to turn the industry around.

19 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

Science and French Presidents

Over at GNXP there is a link to a fascinating Nature interview with each of the three leading French presidential candiates being asked the same questions (via email I guess). Bayrou and Sego don't manage to say anything beyond the usual duck-billed platitudes about how they intend their government to spend more money on pretty much everything. Sarko certainly isn't shy about campaing cash promises either but he does make a few other interesting responses as well.

Is French science in decline and, if so, why? How much will you invest in science, when and on what priorities?

Nicolas Sarkozy: It's true that we've had various warning signs over the past few years that the relative position of French science in the world is being eroded. France nonetheless maintains expertise of the highest international level in many disciplines, in particular in mathematics, physics and engineering. I note too that France exports its scientific expertise abroad, even if I regret the fact that many of our young scientists increasingly choose to leave the country because they no longer feel they can succeed at home.

How would you modernize France's universities?

M. Sarkozy: As of the day after the elections, I will be ready to launch a major reform of French universities designed to give them much more autonomy. This will include powers to recruit, to fix salaries, to decide how they organize themselves, to build endowments and to diversify their funding sources. I will also rebuild the way that they are governed, restructuring their executive boards and the ways they choose their presidents.

What cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions would you commit France to and how would you attain them? What should be agreed post-Kyoto?

M. Sarkozy: I am proud to be able to say that France made a visionary choice in committing itself several decades ago to developing its nuclear-power programme. Just think, the carbon emissions saved by France using nuclear-power stations rather than fossil fuels are equivalent to those of all Europe's cars. Of course, we have also made scientific and technological priorities of research on renewable energy and more energy-efficient means of production and transport.

Note that these responses are edited by me to avoid the bits I'm not interested in highlighting. I think that the bit about "exporting its scientific expertise" is particularly good. I'm not sure if Sarko has actually said it but this exporting of the brightest and best is not limited to science,

19 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

Tag the Senile

Another one of those "Huh" moments. Some bright spark in HMG thinks we should tag our senile old grannies and grandpas and let the poor dears wander around the place on their own. Given that tagging prisoners has been such a magnificent success (er not) obviously we can expect the same level of competence when we call our friendly local tag watcher and ask him or her for a fix on dear old auntie Mildred.
"Yeah er she's at 101 Gresham St as usual"
"No she isn't that's where I am she's not here"
"Err hang on" tappety tap "Ohno she's moved lookes like Bolsover square now, no wait a sec now she's on the high street, do you think she's on a bus?"
And that's the sort of best case scenario. Worst case is when the tagger doesn't work or gives inaccurate information. I'm not a GPS expert but I can tell you that GPSes are not exactly pin-point accuracy, especially in urban areas, and are total pants if you go inside buildings or enclosed metal vehicles. Even when they are accurate they are accurate to approx 10m or so. In a vehicle 10m is usually accuate enough because it can predict which street you are on (although I've frequently seen GPSes put me on the wrong street now and again), as a pedestrian it is less good. Is she in the pub's beer garden having a snooze or 5m north on the other side of the wall by the rubish bins? Is she walking across the highstreet using the bridge and stop to admire the view or did she just step out in front of a car? Indoors (assuming the thing works indoors) is worse. What floor is she on? 10m accuracy gives you at least two and maybe three to choose from.

And that assumes she's remembered to put the thing on, has had the battery charged up etc.

But I have a concrete suggestion. Tag our politicians and civil servants and let them see how well the system works first.

For extra fun and games make sure the tag has a high voltage shocker for those periods when the scum need a bit of a reminder and let random members of the public decide when to set them off. If you stuck a cameraphone on the tag I reckon this could be the next big hit reality TV show.

20 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

Friday Olive Tree Blogging

One disadvantage of the ruthless pruning our olive trees have had is that I can't get images like this one (from February) any more. The way that olive trees change colour in different lights is one of the things that I love about them and this golden hue is one of my favourites, especially when, as in this image, it is against the background of dark storm clouds.

As always click on the image to see it enlarged and do look at the olive blogging archive if you've not seen them before

20 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

Not Kiddiefiddler.com But Cardfraud.com

I am far from alone in thinking that paedophiles are the scum of the earth. So when I read that police have a list of such folks because they paid for access to child porn sites with their credit cards I far from alone in the "string the scum up" point of view. I'm also of the opinion that anyne who used their credit card to pay for such images is an idiot who deserves what comes to him.

Well it turns out that the kiddie fiddlers may not be quite so stupid after all. As Duncan Campbell reported in the Grauniad yesterday, one of the huge lists of supposed paedophiles appears to have been more a list of victims of credit card fraud than anything worse. Mind you it turns out that some of the victims may have been accessing porn to get their details stolen but lookng at naked ladies (or gentlemen if you prefer them) is not a crime or anything more than slightly embarassing if caught and other victims appear to have seen their details nicked from a Florida luxury goods store.

Credit card fraud can be bad enough - it has happened to me a couple of times - but it is far worse when the goods you are allegedly buying is child pornography. [Oh and it is worth pointing out that stuff labeled child porn can include photos of teenagers who appear to be mature so even visitng a "child porn" site may in fact mean visiting a site where the models were aged 16-17]

A question for further pondering - given that there seems to be a surprising correlation between rape and pornography (rape goes down as porn goes up) - should we be tolerant of kiddiefiddlers with dirty pictures of children because someone who can get satisfaction by looking at the pictures won't be attacking the real kids?

20 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

Criminalizing the Victims

So the UK, which as we know has banned guns and is therefore completely safe, has a problem. The problem is that those non-existent guns still get used in crimes and the victims of those crimes, at least that is the victims who are still alive and not pushing up the daisies, are loathe to press charges or tell the police. According to the BBC and the Grauniad the Chief CuntStubble Constable of Murkeyside has come up with a cunning plan to make the victims more likely to grass on their attackers:

Merseyside's Chief Constable Bernard Hogan-Howe told the Guardian newspaper that the protective "wall of silence" around those involved had to be broken.

He said Britain should adopt laws similar to those in Australia which make it a duty to report information.

Yes indeed here you are, you've just had some nasty criminal shoot you and the polce want you to tell them whodunnit on pain of going to the chokey if you decide that discretion is likely to involve living longer and better than spilling the beans.

Now why, one wonders, would a reasonable law abiding subject of Her Majesty decide that he (or she) would prefer not to tell the police who the attacker was? I've got some suggestions.
  1. As a lawabiding person you are unarmed and know full well that if you attempt to defend yourself the police will charge you with assault anyway.
  2. You have this vague feeling that calling 999 when you hear someone kicking in the door will not result in the Sweeney showing up before your attacker and/or his mates have had their way with you
  3. If by some miracle the fuzz do show up first, the attacker and/or mates will scatter leaving you to be charged with wasting police time
In other words once you are shot you then become a criminal unless you have sufficient confidence in the police being able to arrest your attacker and that he won't have some gang of friends who wish to explain to you in words of one kick that they don't appreciate your cooperation with the law.

The Grauniad piece (which the BBC mostly summarizes) also ends up with this total statistical non-sequitur:

In 2004-05, there were 78 fatal shootings in England and Wales: 40 victims were white, 25 black, seven Asian. The figures do not record the ethnicity of the killers but, by and large, murderers tend mostly to target members of their own ethnic group. In 2005-06, there were 50 fatal shootings: 18 victims were white, 19 black and four Asian.

The law this maroon is proposing is about people who are shot but survive. People who are fatally shot do not survive to tell the police anything. An article last year in the Independent tells us there were a lot of gun incidents behind those low numbers of deaths:

Gun crime rose slightly in the United Kingdom last year, to 11,110 incidents. There were 3,865 firearms offences in London, up 7 per cent, with Lambeth, Hackney and Haringey seeing 25 per cent rises. One tenth of all firearms offences in the UK are shootings: Trident dealt with 241 non-fatal shootings in the year to March - up by one third - with 15 fatal shootings.

(I assume the "last year" is 2005). So we have about 11,000 gun crimes, 1100 shootings and roughly 60 fatal shootings. Oh and depsite all those draconian gun laws the gun crimes are going up as are just about all other violent crimes. And the way to stop this is to send the victims to prison if they don't cooperate.

20 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

An Advertising 'Recession'

Via Jeff Jarvis, who calls it "Bad News", I see that the New York Times reports on the dire fortunes of America's dead tree news industry. It's definitely bad news for purveyors of dead ideologies trees and those paid to fill them but I'm not so convinced it is necessarily bad for the rest of the world. However what I thought was amusing was the NYT's explanation of why the newpaper companies are in trouble:

Buffeted by an ongoing advertising recession, The New York Times Company and the Gannett Company announced yesterday that their first-quarter profits declined while the Tribune Company reported a loss.

The disappointing results underscored the increasingly tough economic times faced by the industry as advertisers continued to shift their focus away from print to the Internet. In particular, areas like real estate and classified, previously rich revenue generators for newspapers, continued to be weak.

The first paragraph makes it seem like it is a widespread problem. You know advertisers just aren't spending the money. But then the second paragraph explains that the problem is not exactly a recession so much as a change in where advertisers wish to spend their money. We can tell this because Google announced excellent results and Yahoo, while not so good, did report:

Revenue rose seven per cent to $1.67bn with a strong demand for display ads and sales of text-only contextual ads late in the quarter.

So er no this is not a recession, although I suppose it probably is a 'recession' in much the same way that an insurgent is not the same as an 'insurgent'. Anyway the NYT aricle then explains that:

While newspaper companies have been eager to highlight how fast their Internet advertising is growing, the Times Company decided to reduce its 2007 guidance for Internet revenue growth, suggesting that the transition from a print advertising model may be a long time coming.

Up to a point, Lord Copper. The transition from a print advertising model to an Internet one is clearly one that advertisers have embraced, unfortunately the dead tree purveyors haven't so yes the transition to Internet advertising for the NY Times may well be a long time coming. Unfortunately the transition from a print advertising model seems to be coming rather rapidly implying that the Times and co are going to transitioning to a "no advertising" model and hence to a no business model.

20 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

Lucy's Blade by John Lambshead

Baen have just released Lucy's Blade, a delightful first novel by one Dr John Lambshead, a scientist at the Natural History Museum who specalizes in nemoatodes. Although a fantasy about nematodes would certainly be unique and could possibly be interesting it was, I suspect, a good idea to look for a different subject and he has managed to avoid mention of lower invertebrates in this novel, which is mostly an Elizabethan fantasy. I'll explain why I say mostly later, suffice it to say that this book is one that I have greatly enjoyed (re)reading and one that appeals on many levels despite ploughing through the well turned soil of Elizabethan England.

I have no idea how many stories have been set in Elizabethan England, from historical novels to romances to fantasies of one sort or another. Indeed a moment of thought allows me to think of at least three in my own library: Ill Met by Moonlight, part of a Baen series by Mercedes Lackey and Roberta Gellis; the other Ill Met by Moonlight (by Baen author Sarah Hoyt) and the short story by Mary Jo Beverley in Irresistible Forces. Many of them involve the same characters, Dr Dee the scholar/magician/mathematician, Queen Elizabeth, Francis Walsingham the spy master, De Vere the Earl of Oxford, Drake, Hawkins and so on. Indeed when I read the first chapter of Dr Lambshead's book I felt a moment of fear that this was going to be like Ms Beverley's tale - one that I have to admit failed to grip - as it also started off with Dr Dee, but fortunately Lucy's Blade turned a very different furrow, despite also being a romantic novel set in Elzabethan England and containing magic.

So why do I say mostly an Elizabethan fantasy? The first thing is that, like Ringo's There Will Be Dragons series, this is fantasy with a sorta scientific background. The second is that he wraps the mostly historical story with a bit in the far future (the SF part) and another in the present giving us a fun bit of urban fantasy action adventure complete with vampires (in fact the vampire from his JBU short story) as well as the Tudor derring do. This sort of double wrapper is unique in my experience and great fun.

The tale itself is historically reasonably accurate. There is of course a certain amount of artistic license and occasional errors slip in (one barfly noted that a hymn used at one point turns out to have been written in about 1850) but they aren't major and some of the anecdotes such as Queen Elizabeth's humiliation of Oxford - "I have quite forgot the fart" - have a long historical provenance even if some spoilsports think they didn't happen. One very nice thing is that there are some excellent world-building bits where the protagonists do things that don't necessarily help the plot along but which do allow the author to describe, say, bits of Elizabethan London (and environs) without making it into a laboured infodump - he has clearly taken on board "show not tell" and all those other rules for good wrting. Sometimes these diversions also act as red herrings as to things that might turn out to be important some time later but actually turn out not to be. They are also frequently amusing

"The meal was washed down with ale from a wooden mug. No one but the desperate drank water in England. The poor drank water and died of typhoid. The last administration in England that had delivered clean water supplies to the cities had owed their allegiance to Caesar."

There are in fact any number of amusing quips and throwaway lines. The modern era piece has, for example, a very nice dig at our ZANU Labour masters and their fantastically successful educational policies:

"No offence, Alice, but why you? You're a history lecturer for London University, not Emma Peel."

"I wish I was back at Royal Holloway College right now," Alice said, with feeling. When she was not attempting to drum knowledge into sprawled ranks of hungover undergraduates, she spent her quality time in the university library researching her next book.

"So why aren't you?" asked Hammond.

"I have generally found it politic to obey smartly when the Commission makes a polite request. Otherwise, my research funds could suddenly dry up and I might find myself assigned to teaching Media Studies students how to use joined-up writing."

All in all this is a fun read. Lots of action, lots of wry comments, interesting plot twists. And the odd comment to remind you that England under the first Elizabeth was very different to that under the second. No it probably isn't high literature, no it doesn't shew great and hitherto unknown insight into the human condition. But it is the sort of book that gets reread when you want a light-hearted romp and not something angsty or dystopian. Finally, although it can clearly be extended, it doesn't cry out for "sequel" which only means I want some sequels even more.

23 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

Apathy Vote Loses

As I explained in The Sarko Referendum Approaches last week, I was hoping for a Sarko-Sego match up for round two because this should almost certainöly ensure that we see President Sarko. Round one was interesting for a couple of reasons.

Firstly a lot of people voted. The BBC reports 84.6% turnout which is far better than most recent French elections and many in other traditional democracies too. To put this into perspective this means is that even François Bayrou, the third place candidate, beat the apathy vote, as did the combined left/right loony fringe vote.

Secondly this time the main candidates of the left and right did better on polling day than they had been doing in recent opinion polls. Sarko especially did well stealing votes (apparently) from Le Pen. Given that Le Pen and others had predicted the reverse effect (Le Pen gaining from Sarko) this is probably a sign that on the right at least, pragmatism ruled. Both Bayrou's weak showing - certainly Sarko seems not to have seen many defectors to Bayrou - and Royal's strength indicates that the centre-left felt the same way.

Thirdly the figures show  just oevr 40% right (Sarko + Le Pen), just under 40% left (Royal + the various loony lefties) and 20% centrist (Bayrou and De Villiers). In other words the country is fairly evenly divided.

Fourthly Le Pen did badly making this photo of Le Pen in the bin that I took on Easter look eerily prescient:

So that is all good news. We had a humdinger of an election with real candidates promising real things and not business as usual and the public responded by voting.

Now we see how the run off goes. And this is indeed the Sarko referendum. We know that 31.2% of the electorate likes Sarko and that 10.4% likes Le Pen so those voters should be secure for Sarko in round 2. Unfortunately that is no more than 41.6% so Sarko needs about half the De Villiers and Bayrou voters too. This is entirely doable - he may end up with the majority of Bayrou voters since many of them seem to be uncomfortable with Royal - but, on theother hand, this same collection of people are the ones that Royal needs to woo too.

23 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

St George's Day 2002

The launch of the ZX Spectrum. Blame that for this blog if you like.

27 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

Friday Olive Tree Blogging

Today's image is of "olive trees gone wild". This tree is somewhere below Bouyon in the "Arriere Pays" behind Nice. Once upon a time this tree and its friends and neighbours were a valued part of the local community but rural depopulation and so on mean that they've been pretty much ignored for years. And you can tell.

If you want to see the tree in its full high res goodness click on the image and do look at past olive tree blogging images if you missed them

29 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

The Economist on EU Constitution

For all its occasional faults here and there the ecomomist is in the main a remarkably sound magazine. This week its Charlemagne column makes the key point that after two years f scratching their heads abotu what to do with the EU Constitution our glorious leaders seem to have decided to just go ahead and implement it anyway but not tell us that they are doing so.

Europe's leaders are united around two incompatible beliefs. The first is that their citizens want them to press ahead with reviving most or all of the constitution. The second is that it is wisest to avoid testing this thesis by asking those citizens directly in new referendums. For this contradiction, blame those exquisitely tuned political ears. EU bosses insist that they hear citizens demanding that the union be made more “effective”; and this, the politicians say, means salvaging bits of the constitution (even if they disagree over which bits). But to avoid putting this to the test, their efforts are bent on avoiding referendums (except for Ireland, whose law may make a referendum unavoidable). As one top Eurocrat puts it, the thought of further referendums inspires “absolute, sheer terror” in Brussels.

The whole column is a must read but the conclusion is pretty good as it explains that this passing by stealth is somewhat of a retreat from the original raison d'etre of constitution:

But if European leaders now pretend that they are simply correcting the excessive claims they made in the past, they are being too easy on themselves. The truth is that plans to resurrect the constitution display contempt for their voters' intelligence. The extraordinary 12-point questionnaire sent out to EU governments by Ms Merkel in recent days is designed largely to explore possible ways of smuggling a new text past unwitting voters. Suggested tricks include sacrificing high-profile bits that do not matter (an article confirming that the EU anthem is the “Ode to Joy”); and hiding other sensitive bits, for instance the Charter of Fundamental Rights, a sweeping list of social rights, by replacing its full text with “a short cross-reference having the same legal value”. Those with long memories will recall that, when the charter was first proposed in 1999, the politicians argued that making fundamental rights “more visible to the union's citizens” was indispensable to the EU's legitimacy. Now, it seems, it is indispensable for the charter to vanish from sight altogether.

Such sneakiness matters. The starting-point for the constitution, the 2001 Laeken declaration, talked of making the union more transparent and bringing it “closer to its citizens”. Never again would Europe advance by stealth, went the boast. The people of Europe were crying out to be inspired by an ambitious new text, the politicians declared—and they could hear them.

It is this kind of bollocks, combined with the way that Brussels allows unelected jobsworths to shift the buck for brain dead rules, that makes me embarrassed that I once thought the EU was a good idea.

29 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

Semi Nice Semi-Marathon Result

I blogged a couple of months ago about the fact that I was going to be running the Semi-Marathon de Nice today. Well I did so, as did my wife, but neither of our times were as good as we hoped. The wife missed breaking 2 hours by a minute and change (although we reckon that most of the minute plus was taken up getting to the start) in the official results and I failed abysmally in my goal of under 1h30.
Semi official certificate
This is practically the same speed as I have done three out of the four Nice half marathons that I have run. Next year there WILL be improvements...

30 April 2007 Blog Home : All April 2007 Posts : Permalink

This is a first

I'm going to be linking approvingly to a post by the moonbats at DailyKos. The post is about the RI Ass A and its internet radio smackdown:

There has been an understandable public outcry against the RIAA’s attempts to more than triple the sound recording copyright royalties on Internet radio. (See Save Internet Radio from Corporate Money Grab) One solution proposed by Webcasters is to just not play RIAA-member songs under the assumption that then they don’t have to pay the royalty to the RIAA’s collection body, SoundExchange; Webcasters would then just pay the independent artist the royalty.

This sounds fair and just because it is. However, the RIAA is not about being fair and just. The game is rigged and the RIAA has rigged it in their favor. The strategy of playing only non-RIAA songs won't work though because the RIAA has secured the right to collect royalties on all songs regardless of who controls the copyright. RIAA operates under the assumption that they will collect the royalties for the "sound recording copyright" and that the artists who own their own copyright will go to SoundExchange to collect at a later date.

Look at the information on SoundExchange.com (RIAA created SoundExchange) and see how it works. The RIAA has secured legal authority to administer a compulsory license that covers all recorded music.

There is detail below this excerpt but that is the basic claim and from the RI Ass A's SoundExchange site it appears to be true. The RI Ass A have managed to get themselves into a position where they can legally set a royalty rate and collect royalties on all music played on the Internet in the USA. Artists and reconrd labels are neither permitted to opt out of this scheme nor cut side deals with Internet radio stations and this applies no matter whether the artist/label is a member of the RIAA or not.

This is the sort of monopolistic rent seeking behaviour that is the worst part of the copyright laws as they currently stand and seems like an excellent reason for copyright reform to remove these abusinve parasites. I am not clear how exactly the process to change things works but it seems clear to me that this deal is a major infringement on the rights of individual copyright owners to negotiate contracts and ought therefore to be investigated and struck down by some anti-trust body in the USA and/or by some lawsuit claimng infringement of some basic rights to negotiate contracts oneself that gets to the supreme court. Of course that is the slow legal way to do things, the faster way would be for the US Congress to pass a law (and I would think the law need be no more than 5 lines long) stating that no third party may set a license rate and that copyright owners (or their agents blah blah blah) are entitled to set rates of zero for some uses of their work if they so wish.

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin