Great British Mystery

April 25, 2012

I love mysteries. Sherlock Holmes, Poirot and Precious Ramotswe are fictional detectives with whom I have spent many a happy hour; ‘Sherlock’, ‘CSI’, ‘The Mentalist’ and similar shows form the bulk of my television viewing. Therefore it’s no surprise that I’ve been following the real-life mystery of the death of Gareth Williams with close attention.

Here’s what happened. On the 23rd August 2010 a locked red sports bag was found in the bath at Gareth Williams’ flat in London. Inside was his naked, decomposing body, and under the body–inside the bag–was the key to the lock. It transpired that Mr Williams was employed by MI6, but not in a James Bondish role; he was a mathematical boffin who worked in the cipher department, and, apparently, under secondment to GCHQ, the NSA at Fort Meade, the CIA and the FBI. There were no signs of a break-in or struggle on the premises; there was no forensic evidence to link anyone to the crime; and the coroner could not determine the cause of death. Because it was determined that Mr Williams could not possibly have locked the bag whilst he was inside it, they labelled the death ‘suspicious and unexplained’.
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Corporate Bullies

March 22, 2012

In South Africa every household that owns a television set must, by law, purchase a licence every year. Businesses must have a separate licence for each TV set. A TV is defined as any electronic equipment that can receive a TV signal, so, for example, a VCR or PC equipped with a TV card are counted as TV sets and must be licensed. Failure to pay the licence fee is a criminal offense. The money thus raised is paid to the SABC, but not to other commercial broadcasters. I have argued elsewhere that the SABC licence fee is immoral; but this post is about the revolting, dishonest, thuggish bullying that the SABC and their collecting agencies use in an attempt to frighten consumers into paying licence fees that in many cases are not even owed.
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Beer and Baptists

March 8, 2012

My financial woes are over. When I get my payout from SAB-Miller I’ll be able to afford the lifestyle I so obviously deserve.

You see, if I hadn’t used so much of their product in my youth I would have been at least a billionaire and quite possibly the chairman of a FTSE 100 company. The money I spent purchasing beer by the cubic meter would have been invested in dot com start-ups and then sold before the bubble burst; my brain would have been unrotted by booze and, with steady hands and a clear-eyed, steely gaze, I would have ascended the corporate ladder, yeah, even unto the highest rung. I therefore intend to file suit and sue the brewery for leading me astray and depriving me of the riches that should have been mine.

I suppose you think I’ve eaten of the insane root that takes the reason prisoner, and I don’t blame you; but what I described above is what, in essence, the mellifluously named Arquimedes Nganga is doing, except that the defendant in his case is the Baptist Church, and it wasn’t beer that was his downfall, but religious mania.
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Polygraph Testing

March 1, 2012

I received an epistle from the South African Labour Guide yesterday. It was on the subject of polygraph testing and began:

Employers are often faced with dishonest or criminal activities such as misappropriation of property or theft in its work environment, without knowing exactly where, how and by whom it was committed. It is crippling the business and the employer is at its wits-end to find the culprits or wants to know: “Can I send all my employees for a polygraph test and if so, what can I do if they fail?”

It then went on, in answering this question, to miss the point entirely: it didn’t even touch on the scientific validity of polygraph testing. To be fair, the Labour Guide is a guide to labour law, and does not use objective truth as its yardstick; but I would still expect it at least to touch upon one of the best defences against polygraph evidence–that it is pseudoscientific nonsense that has been thoroughly discredited, and whose use should be illegal. It might be instructive to look at how it is supposed to work.

The victim is attached to various wires which connect to a machine that measures heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and skin conductivity. The interrogator will then follow one of two techniques: the control question test (CQT) or the relevant/irrelevant test (RIT). In the IRT the inquisitor will ask irrelevant questions (is your name Fred?), interspersed with relevant questions about which the test is really being conducted (did you plant the bomb?). If the lies (or truth) told in response to the irrelevant show the same physiological responses as those for the relevant questions, then the subject passes the test. The CQT is similar, but additional irrelevant questions are posed that will most probably result in a lie (have you ever lied to avoid trouble?). The assumption is that everyone has lied at some stage in the past, and that if the victim replies to this question in the negative he is lying, which will allow the operator to compare the physiological response to this ‘known lie’ with answers to the relevant questions.
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Gay Uganda

February 16, 2012

David Bahati doesn’t like gays. In fact, he dislikes them so passionately he wants them to be put to death. This wouldn’t matter a jot if David Bahati were some African version of Archie Bunker, sitting on his LazyBoy in front of his television with an open can of Tusker, watching a football game and fulminating against all and sundry; but David Bahati is a member of Uganda’s parliament and the National Resistance Movement, which is the ruling party in that splendid country. He has brought a Private Member’s Bill called the Anti-Homosexuality Bill (PDF) which, if passed, will ensure that no one’s member remains private. He wants life imprisonment for homosexual acts and the death sentence for what he regards as “aggravated” homosexuality–offences in which the perpetrator is either HIV positive, or seduces a minor, or is a serial offender.

Apart from the barbarity of penalties envisioned, the entire Bill is based on a false premise. The first paragraph of the Bill states:

This legislation further recognizes the fact that same sex attraction is not an innate and immutable characteristic.

But same sex attraction has been shown in numerous peer-reviewed research papers to be precisely an innate and immutable characteristic.
Here are some examples. But even if homosexuality were a choice and not an immutable characteristic, it would still not be excusable to pass legislation of this sort which seeks to criminalise consensual sexual behaviour between adults.
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Intellectual Property

February 9, 2012

I am in favour of the protection of intellectual property (IP) rights. It is reasonable for a musician, author, artist or company to be remunerated for the products of their minds, whether individual or collective. Without protection for IP, no one would have any incentive to be creative and produce works that entertain, uplift, contribute to our culture, cure our diseases, or make life simpler and more enjoyable.

However, I do have a problem with the way IP is being protected at the moment. For example, an author writes a book. That book will remain in copyright until seventy years after the author’s death. Why? Because, say the copyright Gestapo, the author’s heirs and their heirs must have a slice of the pie. I see no reason for this because it is unreasonable. I write computer software for a corporate company. My contract includes the boilerplate that cedes copyright in my work to the company, who certainly won’t pay my salary to my heirs for seventy years after I drop off the twig, even if the software I wrote is still in production. I have to buy life insurance if I want my heirs to be taken care of financially after my death, and I fail to see why creative artists should be any different.
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Thirsty Work

November 22, 2011

When I first saw the headline “EU bans claim that water can prevent dehydration” I did one of those eye-bulging, cartoonish double takes. Surely I had misread? Or misunderstood? I checked the date: nope, not April the 1st. Surely no one sane could claim that water doesn’t prevent dehydration? After all, that’s the very definition of ‘dehydration’. From Oxford online dictionary

Pronunciation:/diːhʌɪˈdreɪt, diːˈhʌɪdreɪt/
[with object] (often as adjective dehydrated)
cause (a person or their body) to lose a large amount of water:
his body temperature was high and he had become dehydrated
[no object] lose a large amount of water from the body:
the nurses made sure I didn’t dehydrate
remove water from (food) in order to preserve and store it:
dehydrated mashed potatoes

I was not the only one smacked in the gob by the apparent lunacy of the EU. Here’s what MEP Roger Helmer had to say:

This is stupidity writ large. The Euro is burning, the EU is falling apart and yet here they are worrying about the obvious qualities of water. If ever there were an episode which demonstrates the folly of the great European project, then this is it.

Then I thought for a little longer. Read the rest of this entry »