31 May, 2008

Life diagrams

The Freakonomics blog has been hosting Jessica Hagy's diagram comments on life for a while now.

Her own blog (here) is certainly worth a look.

29 May, 2008

Cluster bombs - the op line

I've been wondering if cluster bombs will come up at Euros this year. The 'ban them' argument is reasonably straight forward and shouldn't need any explanation. Here, however, is an argument to keep them (which may be useful).

28 May, 2008

BVC gossip - Salacious

I am ever so grateful to 50-Year-Old Pupil for bringing this to my attention. It has been a source of rumour all year for the BVCers at my institution and it seems wonderful that it's been vindicated.

Salacious, one might say.

OLPAS rejection 1/8

Just received my first, ever OLPAS rejection.

I now feel like a genuine part of the two-third body of BVCers who are failures.

Toodles off to get drunk.

(ps: no sympathy required - it was a 'fill up the form' Set in an area of the country in which I don't actually want to work!)

US election haiku

Barack Obama:
Vulnerable to haiku,
Unlike John McCain

(Courtesy of Megan McArdle)

Most amazing (real) thing on the internet...

This is probably one of the most amazing things I've ever seen.

(ignore the crazy commentator near the beginning).

I couldn't even begin to imagine being that strong or that flexible!

Normal Service

Sorry about the lack of posts, I was in the middle of nowhere for a few days over the bank holiday.

Normal service (should) resume later today.

23 May, 2008

Risks and Liberty

This article not only agrees with my opinion that humans are rubbish at analysing risk, but also has a neat piece of analysis on the impact of false positives on our risk assessments.

I agree with him that perhaps 'risk' should be taught in schools. Perhaps it could replace general studies?

22 May, 2008

Best Exam Ever

I would like to sit an exam like this one, please!

On the note of examinations, I was just discussing them with Andropov and we agreed that the release of exam results should also bring either a model answer, or the detailed mark scheme or a list of the correct answers (depending on the nature of the exam).

I know that they are starting to do this with GCSE papers and think it is nothing but a good idea. Whilst it's all very well knowing you got 20% of the questions wrong in civil litigation, it would bb more helpful if you realised half of the ones you got wrong were on, say, CPR part 20 claims so you knew the areas that you had difficulties with. On a course which is designed to be teaching skills, I think this would be especially useful.

21 May, 2008

The costs of taxation

There's a really interesting article on the costs taxation imposes on society.

Broadly speaking, the writer identifies 4 costs:
1. administrative
2. compliance
3. avoidance
4. dead weight

Definitely worth a read.

Geeky Analytics II

In keeping with the geekiness of yesterday's analysis of your comments, the top ten searches that get people here are:











The first 7 I can understand. Number 8 confuses me somewhat as I didn't think I'd written about Alex at all. WTF are the last two about?

Any suggestions will be welcomed!

Difference between a cult and a religion

I was thinking, as one does, on what the difference is between a cult and a religion.

I instinctively believe that there is a difference, but I wasn't sure how to logic it out. I was also certain that cults could become religions and, less commonly, religions could disintegrate into cults.

Turns out that the tax man is useful sometimes, especially when religions are given charitable status and cults are not.

My good old friend (no, not alcohol, google) took me to a BBC 'e-cyclopedia' (no, I'd never heard of it either) and apparently the test is a five stage one. If an organisation displays all five stages, they're a cult. If they don't, they're not.

Definition of cult:
1. Uses psychological coercion to recruit, indoctrinate and retain its members
2. Forms an elitist society
3. Founder leader is self appointed, dogmatic, messianic, charismatic and unaccountable
4. Believes 'ends justify means' in raising funds and recruitment
5. Wealth does not benefit its members or society

Of course, the real difference is that my beliefs are a religion and yours are a cult :)

20 May, 2008

Dear and Darling Readers

My dear and darling readers,

I'm worried.

I've just been looking over the number of comments posted on various posts and the top three, in order, are:

1st: Bouncy Castles
2nd: Ananas/Pineapples (a debate on etymology)
3rd: Abortion

Now, I can only think of one explanation for this: My views are so wonderfully clear and thought out that the only issues upon which I cannot persuade you to change your minds are on the less serious ones such as children's toys and the etymology of South American fruits.

Ahem, better go and get another glass of wine, methinks.

Women and the Olympics

I have long been tempted by motions which would basically read "THW sanction countries which practised gender apartheid" but gut instinct tells me that you'd get one good room and 9 rooms which dissolved into model bashing.

We - rightly- condemned South Africa for the state's oppression of the non-whites living there. Why on earth do we find the situation in KSA more acceptable? Is the oppression of women so commonplace that it does not merit comment?

This alternative
, of banning countries from the Olympics if they did not let women compete, is far more attractive.

19 May, 2008

Military on Campus

Various student unions have tried to ban the military from campus recently. In UCL (London) the motion was passed, at University of Manchester, the motion failed.

It begs the question, what is the point of a student's union? To me, two examples illustrate good and bad practice. About 4 years ago, UMSU made it compulsory for all shops of campus to stock fair trade. Last year, UMSU banned coca-cola from its campuses.

Now, regardless of whether you think fairtrade goods are overall effective, they are seen as a 'good' and 'moral' option. In this instance, UMSU was forcing the shops on campus to allow consumers a choice between a moral option and a less moral option, but was not making the decision for them.

In regards to coke, on the other hand, the Union was preventing consumers from making any choice at all. I would have little problem with the people who didn't like coke being allowed to put a little sign up next to places where it was sold saying why they thought it was bad, but they decided completely removing highly intelligent and educated people's right to make a choice was more important. That was wrong.

So how does this link into banning the military? Well, it basically asks the question of whether the role of the Union is to give students opportunities or to protect them. In my view, the purpose of the union is to do the former. Assuming the students at Manchester are intelligent, highly educated people and knowing that the people who run the union are from that same student body, the union has no more knowledge, wisdom or experience in this issue than the student body. In which case, it should shut up and sit down.

What I find deeply ironic about this case is one of the most serious 'charges' the union laid against the military on campus was that it recruited students who would have to go and fight in wars but the recruiting video didn't show them this. Now, I dispute that OTC etc are directly supposed to be recruiting organisations (though I reckon that if students do join the army having been in them, the army considers that a bonus), but let's be kind to UMSU and pretend that they are for a second. The worry UMSU had was that people would join the army without knowing what they'd let themselves in for. So, they had the grand idea of banning an organisation which gave a fairly realistic simulation of army life without actually being dangerous. That is to say, they ban an organisation which teaches people how rubbish some aspects of army life are on the grounds that people would make a better decision as to whether or not to join the army based on no experience of the army whatsoever.

Even better, the UMSU wanted the army off the campus. It wanted it to stop recruiting students. Given the army needs a certain number of recruits each year, stopping it from speaking on university campuses would simply mean it had to tackle non-university students instead. Non-university students are likely to be less education, more likely to be swayed by attractive advertising and less likely to have even had simulated army experience. Overall, they are far more ignorant of what they are letting themselves in for.

How wonderfully logical and moral of the UMSU.

16 May, 2008

The US election

Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Mc Cain were flying to a debate.

Barack looked at Hillary, Chuckled and said, "You know I could throw a $1,000 bill out of the window right now and make somebody very happy."
Hillary shrugged her shoulders and replied, "I could throw ten $ 100 bills out of the window and make ten people very happy."
John added, "That being the case, I could throw one hundred $10 bills out of the window and make a hundred people very happy."

Hearing their exchange, the pilot rolled his eyes and said to his copilot, "Such big-shots back there. I could throw all three of them out of the window and make 156 million people very happy."

What makes us human?

Violent Acres has a really interesting post on her views on what makes us human as opposed to just animals.

In her view, it's our ability to experience empathy and worry about the wider picture rather than just worry about ourselves and where our next meal is coming from. More here.

Pictures on blog posts?

Pictures on blog posts, aye or nay?

15 May, 2008

Estonian news, in English

For Estonian daily news (and, indeed, Baltic news) in English, go here.


Be happy! Be glad!

There is to be a new Freakonomics book, this time titled "SuperFreakonomics".

Ok, so this was first mentioned in 2005 according to a search of their blog

But that means publication should be even sooner, should it? Unfortunately, no Amazon.co.uk listing yet.

We can but live and wait.

14 May, 2008

Chinese Earthquake II

I compared the Chinese response to the earthquake (good) to Burma's response to the cyclone (bad) in a previous post.

This article has more details.

Happyiness and wealth

Various lefty books over the last decade have claimed that wealth does not make us happier (Affluenza being the first one that comes to mind). They based this assertion on a study done which compared happiness levels between countries. Whilst the study did support this view, the data it used was limited. New studies, using much more data, have found money does make us happier - generally. Or, at least, there is a link between happiness and money, they just aren't quite sure which way it goes. What they do know is that the old theory was wrong.

I'm sorry, but your soul just died

Very interesting article in NY Times discussing the relationship between faith and neuro-science.

For reference, the article "I'm sorry, but your soul just died" which they mention in the first paragraph can be found here.

It's startling how accurate Wolfe's predictions were.

13 May, 2008

Giffen good v Luxury goods

I am grateful to DB at Bristol for reminding me about Giffen goods (and then proceeding to teach me what they were from scratch again as I'd forgotten!).

It's quite a useful piece of economic analysis and useful in debating.

So, here is an article on Giffen goods.

And for when you get them confused with luxury goods, here is the clarification of the difference!

Broadly speaking, a Giffen good is one where (contrary to normal economic behaviour), a rise in the price of the good in question causes a rise in demand. (see the rice example in the links above)

A luxury good is one where the demand increases when there is an increase in income. (organic, British, hand-knitted chickens. For example.)

Bouncy Castles

I cannot agree with the ruling given by the House of Lords High Court in the 'bouncy castle case'. (note the excellent use of legal citation there. Hasn't practical legal research taught me a lot?)

What happened to the younger boy was a tragic accident. But accidents happen. When bad things happen, it is not always someone's fault, it's just life. The child will never be able to regain the life he once had, the parents will never get back the son they once had, no matter how much the damages are, they are insufficient. So the ruling doesn't help the family in question. It also has a negative impact on the rest of society. People like bouncy castles. People have fun on them. When you impose liability, there will be less bouncy castles, less fun. This is a harm in itself.

Recent complaints about 'cotton wool culture' have accused health and safety inspectors of overly erring on the side of caution in their interpretation of the law. For the last couple of years, the cry has been to 'let children be children, let them take risks'. The decision in this case suggests that it is not the conservatism of the health and safety inspectors who are at fault, but the entire legal system surrounding the issue.

EDIT: I got it wrong, it wasn't a House of Lords decision, it was the High Court and permission to appeal has been granted.

To wig, or not to wig?

And the wig debate goes on...

For the record: I like them. I like virtually all the archaic customs of the English legal system and would generally keep most parts. Once we've scrapped a tradition, we cannot go back to it. Before scrapping something, therefore, we should be very sure that the balance of harms merits it. Allowing women and people from ethnic minorities to become barristers is a good reason to scrap a tradition. But where is the harm in wigs?

12 May, 2008

Chinese Earthquake

The BBC is estimating 8,500 dead in the earthquake that hit China recently. When I first heard the news, I couldn't help but recall Xinran's account (The Good Women of China - highly recommended) of the earthquake that hit Tianjin in 1976. In that situation, it took days before the central government was alerted and initial reports were rejected as fantasies. As a result, aid took far too long to arrive compounding the suffering of the people affected.

Whilst my heart goes out to the victims of this earthquake and their families, the Chinese government is to be applauded this time for taking direct and immediate action to try and aliviate the situation. Wu Jintao has urged an 'all out' effort. Given the Chinese government's ability to to brutally efficient when it wants to be, this is one situation where a singleminded approach will work wonders.

This is in stark contrast to its behaviour before or the behaviour of the Burmese government.

THW force aid on Burma? Absolutely.

11 May, 2008

The Apprentice v Downing Street

It's with interest that I compare India Knight's assertion that 'only women bitch' with the headline story of the BBC today and its serialisation in the Sunday Times.


In Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Turkish, Farsi, Russian, Bulgarian, German, Dutch, Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Czech, Slovak, Polish and Estonian a pineapple is called "Ananas" or similar.

The fruit hit Europe in the 16th century and the original South American word for it was "Anas", the additional "An" at the beginning being a grammatical notation.

Why is English the only language that doesn't call it ananas? I mean, pineapple makes logical sense - tastes like apple, looks like a pine - but why are we the only ones who decided to change it?

I'd be interested to know what it's called in Basque, Finnish and Roumanian as I believe that those three languages are some of the most unique in Europe and don't share their root with the Indo-European language upon which most other languages in the region are based.

10 May, 2008

Italy v Spain: Blue v Pink

Whilst I'm usually anti-socialism, I think the changes which are taking place in Spain at the moment will be interesting to follow. What I find more useful is that Italy can act as a test subject where the changes have not occurred.

I do not usually support the government intervening for minority groups as I think it usually ends up creating more problems than it solves. There are some clear exceptions to this: preventing discrimination in education and domestic violence being the two which spring most quickly to mind.

Usually, if a woman makes it to the top she is not perceived as a role model as she is seen as 'being too male'. I've thought before that if multiple women make it to the top, this is what is necessary for real change to happen (Thatcher v Scandinavian governments, for example). The mass promotion of women into non-traditional female roles (defence being the most extreme) should have an interesting effect.

Watch this space.

09 May, 2008

European Abortion Limits

Just seen this on the comments from this article, in the context of my post on abortion, it seems interesting.

To put the discussion in some sort of context, here are the legal limits for abortion in European countries ...

Illegal -- Ireland, Malta

10 weeks - Poland, Slovenia

12 weeks -- Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Switzerland

13 weeks -- Netherlands

14 weeks -- Romania

16 weeks -- Portugal

18 weeks -- Sweden, Norway

20 weeks --

22 weeks -- Spain

24 weeks -- United Kingdom now

28 weeks - United Kingdom (1967-1990)

08 May, 2008

Religious Tolerance

The right side of religious tolerance.

Economist Rap

He ha, genius:


taken from here

Does paternal leave harm women's careers?

I mentioned replacing maternity leave with parental leave in a blog post a little while ago. In my view, I felt that it was right for two main reasons: firstly, not all families are 'traditional' and having only maternity leave restricts families who wish to have a career woman and a house husband. Secondly, I felt it would be more likely to increase gender equality in the workplace.

I do no agree with the whole of this article (for example, I'm happy to agree that many adult women make choices which 'demote' them without the patriarchy needing to step in an oppress them. But I'm not happy with solely ascribing this to a biological cause), but the paragraph starting "but what does this mean for our currant notions of equality" raises an interesting point as well meaning maybe I need to reconsider whether parental leave would lead to greater gender equality. In American Ivy League universities, where parental leave is offered, it seems that men use it to further their research whilst women use it to raise their children. The result? Men come back with e book, women with a backlog.

07 May, 2008


A fairly simplistic article on the subject here made me think about my views on the subject again.

It's difficult, I think abortion is horrid, wicked and wrong. It should be quite right to try and reduce the number of abortions and abortion should not be applauded.

Yet I'm pretty sure that if I was to find myself pregnant tomorrow, I'd have one. Even if my life is stable enough today that I'd continue with the pregnancy, I know that if I'd have found myself pregnant a couple of years ago, I certainly would have had one.

Of course, I'm in the slightly nicer moral zone of having taken the type of precautions in advance that I hope mean I will never have to make the choice.

If a woman has become pregnant whilst using contraception, or after she though she could no longer bear a child or - obviously - in the especially nasty situations of rape etc, then I have no condemnation for that women. The pregnancy is not her fault, either because it was not foreseeable that it should happen because she was taking steps to prevent it or because not being able to take the relevant steps was forced on her by another.

However, regardless of the circumstances in which a woman became pregnant, I feel that a line must be drawn somewhere. The question therefore becomes, where should that line be drawn? In the UK at the moment, it's 24 weeks. In other European countries, it is much lower - I believe the limit in the Netherlands is 16 weeks.

Whatever the teachings of the relevant authorities say on the subject, I simple cannot believe that a fertilised egg is 'alive'. If the potential for life is the criteria, then with modern technology, we could make a human from the DNA in my hair. We can grow back fingers that have been chopped off (it looks like magic!). The potential for life is everywhere.

Equally, I cannot accept that a 39 week old foetus is not alive. If it were born, even without intervention, it could survive. It feels pain, it moves, it responds to external stimulus, it just feels human as a gut instinct.

Many people point out the irony of there being two wards in a hospital. In ward A, the doctors are aborting a 22 week old foetus. In the other, they are saving a pre-maturely born 22 week old child.

The idea of basing abortion time limits on the viability of a child (with medical assistance) is superficially attractive and feels fair. However, whilst it seems to be an appropriate moral ground upon which to base the decision at the moment, in the long run I think it is dangerous. 16-24 weeks shows a balance of interests between the mother and the foetus. But, medical technology is always improving and maybe, in the future, there will be viability at 6 weeks, or earlier.

Then there is no balance.

I think we need to find a different moral basis on which to base the decision.

More posts when I think of what it might be.

06 May, 2008

3 points...?

"Robert H. Jackson wrote that, as Solicitor-General of the United States in the 1930s, he made three sets of submissions in every case: first, the one he planned (“logical, coherent, complete”), secondly, the one he actually presented (“incoherent, disjointed, disappointing”), and thirdly, “the utterly devastating argument that I thought of after going to bed that night”." (here)

So true in debates as well!


When I saw 'Burma' and 'cyclone' in the papers a couple of days ago, I was worried, but then saw it was 'only' 350 people dead (and not the thousands I had feared, on the basis of the Christmas tsunami).

Then I opened yesterday's papers and the numbers read 10,000.

I open the BBC today and it's 20,000.

How do you go from 350 to 20,000?! That's a margin of error beyond my comprehansion.

02 May, 2008

Incest, homosexuality and civil partnerships

Posters on Cranmer's blog have made a point which I think it worth exploring some more.

The initial case under discussion was the case of the two elderly sisters who had always lived together, never married and were now scared that if one of them died, the other would have to lose her share of the house to pay inheritance tax.

On solution suggested was that the sisters should be allowed to form a civil partnership. Under the law which introduced civil partnerships, people of certain degrees of relation with one another are not allowed to become civil partners. The degrees are the same as those used to prohibit marriage of people too closely related. The suggestion put forward was that there was no reason why civil partnerships should be subject to this condition.

The point of prohibiting incest is because of the genetic problems it can cause in offspring. When you have a same sex couple, this problem doesn't exist. Why then do we prohibit incest between consenting, homosexual adults?

Another poster observed that making this argument was homophobic as it undermined the idea that gay people couldn't have 'true' loving relationships.

I don't think it undermines it at all. The Civil Partnership Act recognised that there were many people who were in relationships which were akin to marriage, but who were not afforded the rights and protections marriage awarded to married couples. The law rightly said that not granting these privileges and protections to people simply because they did not fall into 'the norm' when it came to their relationship was wrong.

As homosexuality is not inherently harmful, the state should not seek to discriminate against those who practice it. Homosexual incest is equally harmless, what is the case for the state discriminating in this circumstance?

NOTE: the sisters in the original part of this post are not gay or incestuous. I just thought it brought up some interesting ideas.

Child adopted against natural father's wishes is legal

A woman becomes pregnant after a one night stand. She gives birth to the child, before giving it up to the local authority for adoption. The local authority (LA) contact the father to ask for a DNA test to confirm paternity. The father states he wishes to take care of the child.

The LA puts the child in foster care. The father's wishes are ignored and he takes the case to court. The day before the hearing, the LA give the child to the new adoptive parents. Once an adoption has taken place, it is too late for the natural parent to get the child back again.

The father brought further legal action against the LA. The judges ruled that the actions of the LA were 'regrettable legal' because the Adoption Act 2002 is human right compliant.

Why did the LA ignore the opinion of the father and do everything possible to have the child adopted instead? Because of government targets for LA's to have children adopted.


(more here)

Inheritance tax and the ordinary person

This article, quite rightly in my view, points out that wills and inheritance aren't just about the rich trying to preserve their wealth for their child, but that wills are something the most ordinary of people write.

A collection of over 200,000 wills made in Surry from the 16th century onwards have just been released online today. Combined with the Old Bailey reports (from 1674-1913), it gives a wonderfully unique picture into people's lives.

01 May, 2008

Where is 'the West'?

Interesting article here about what we mean by 'the West'.