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 »

Piracy and Copyright

August 23, 2011

Most people will be familiar with that annoying, unskippable anti-piracy film that makes inane and impertinent statements (you wouldn’t steal a car, &c) to make its point that piracy of films is stealing. Well, I wouldn’t steal a car, or a handbag, or even a movie, but this has nothing to do with piracy because contrary to the opinion of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which is the organisation that I believe made the film, piracy is not stealing.

The US Supreme Court, ruling in the case of Dowling v. United States in 1985 said that

…interference with copyright does not easily equate with theft, conversion, or fraud. The infringer of a copyright does not assume physical control over the copyright nor wholly deprive its owner of its use. Infringement implicates a more complex set of property interests than does run-of-the-mill theft, conversion, or fraud.

The purpose of copyright law is to ensure that the originators of creative works profit from their labour and thus encourage the creation of such works. Piracy undermines that goal, and is therefore punishable in law. The problem faced by copyright holders in the digital age is that it is almost impossible to prevent people from making easy, cheap copies of their work, which makes copyright law extremely difficult to enforce.
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Euthanasia II

June 15, 2011

A couple of weeks ago Jack Kevorkian, a.k.a. “Doctor Death”, died from complications of liver cancer. Today we have news that Terry Pratchett, the esteemed science fiction author of the Discworld series, is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease, and is campaigning for the right to end his life when and where he likes.

Jack Kevorkian

Well, why shouldn’t he? There seem to be two arguments against any individual choosing the time and manner of his own death: religious, and some variant or other of the “slippery slope”.

The religious argument is simple: only God can ordain the time of our death, and to pre-empt God is a mortal sin. Also inextricably tied into this argument is the notion that humans are fundamentally different to animals by virtue of the possession of a soul, and that what might be “humane” for animals must be rejected for humans on account of our special status.

The slippery slope arguments come in two broad categories. The first goes something like this: “If we allow people who are terminally ill to commit assisted suicide, then we’ll have people doing it who are just depressed or having a bad day.” The second is usually framed as the concern that relatives of the euthanasee might take the opportunity to bump off granny in order to get their avaricious hands on her chattels before she is ready to go, or that granny may feel she’s a burden to her family, so she undergoes assisted suicide as a considerate means of relieving that perceived burden.

I side with Kevorkian and Pratchett in this matter. Neither of the arguments mentioned above hold water, and even if they did they are trumped by a much more compelling moral argument.

The religious wish to impose the sovereignty of their god on everyone, whether or not they believe in that particular god. I do not believe in the existence of any gods, so obviously I must reject as absurd any attempt on the part of the religionists to impose their superstitions on any aspect of my life; and I must oppose as unconstitutional any laws that entrench religious ideals. I find the very notion that we assist animals to die painlessly when their pain becomes severe and call that “humane”, but refuse that same consideration to humans contrary to every tenet of morality, but that does not surprise me–the religious know very little about morality, and what they do know is distorted by the lens of their hand-me-down beliefs.

Slippery slope arguments can be disposed of quite easily simply by exposing the fact that they are straw men; they are objecting to matters that are not even on the table–no one is espousing murder, merely individual freedom of choice.

Which brings us to the clinching, in my view, moral argument. If we value the “right to life” as entrenched in the constitution, then we must acknowledge the concept of ownership of one’s life and body. Who owns your life and body? The church? Your neighbour? The state? Obviously not. You own it, and therefore you must be the sole arbiter of its final disposition. The corollary to this is that any law that attempts to prevent you from exercising your rights over your body is immoral and should be struck from the statute books, and the prosecution of those assisting others to die should be stopped immediately.

I see that the Catholic church saw it as “both ironic and tragic” that Jack Kevorkian did not himself resort to assisted suicide in his final days. Why? They miss the point entirely. He did not choose to do so, but he should have permitted to so choose if he wished. The religionists really don’t seem to able to get a handle on the logic of this argument at all.

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June 6, 2011

The boarding school I attended when I was a small boy employed a Scottish matron to look after our medical welfare. She was rectangular, about four feet tall, had a broad lowland Scots accent, a face like a haggis and a loving heart, not that she would ever own up to that. Whenever we went to see her she would listen to our sad stories, then give us a large, round, blue pill. I always felt much better after this, and attributed the improvement to the pill. With hindsight, I’m sure the pill was nothing more than a multivitamin, and the talk conspired with the placebo effect to produce the improvement in mood. This is only tangentially relevant to my topic for today, which is illegal drugs and the relationship between their users and governments.

Judi Dench

Last week luminaries such as Judi Dench, Sting and Richard Branson expressed their view that the so-called war on drugs was a failure, and that use of illegal drugs should be decriminalised. Well, guys, thanks for pointing out the obvious–obvious to everyone, that is, apart from those legislators who persist in the delusion that they can legislate human nature.

The arguments for decriminalisation are practical: a huge amount law enforcement resources are diverted from fighting other crimes; outrageous profits on illegal drugs mean that the market is perfectly suited to exploitation by organised crime; the trade in illegal drugs cannot be regulated, so their consumers risk injury or death from poor quality merchandise; users are cast out of mainstream society and live dangerously, sharing needles and other kinds of risky behaviour.

In my view Dench et al don’t go far enough. Illegal drugs should not be decriminalised, they should be legalised. Apart from all the reasons given above for decriminalisation, there are compelling moral arguments for legalisation. The first is the lack of consistency in the law. There are no logical reasons why some drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco should be freely available to adults when less harmful substances such as cannabis are illegal. Secondly, there is the question of freedom: if you wish to have a free society, then adults should have freedom over their own bodies, which means the freedom to ingest any substance they like without being dictated to by the state. The function of government is to protect citizens’ rights against other people, not themselves. Free people must have autonomy over their own lives, and suffer government interference only when they infringe the rights of others.

Cannabis grow room (with rozzerette)

“But the the health system won’t be able to cope with millions of addicts!” critics will cry. This is simply untrue–the national fiscus takes in much more from taxes on the sale of alcohol than they expend on treating the fairly small proportion of drinkers who descend into alcoholism. Any drugs can be taxed in the same way as are tobacco and alcohol now, and the profits go to government (disorganised crime) instead of to the criminal cartels. Cynics or conspiracy theorists might make the point that government allows the sale of alcohol and tobacco because it saves a considerable amount of money; the best outcome for government is everyone dropping dead at their retirement parties, saving a fortune in pensions and geriatric care. A legal market in drugs can be regulated by health authorities, ensuring suppliers perform adequate quality control, and that users can be confident of the doses they are purchasing.

I’m sure that somewhere in the back of Richard Branson’s mind is the outline of the advertising campaign he will run upon the launch of Virgin Psychedelic, and the profits he will make out of marketing cheap, high quality product to an appreciative public.

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Stokes Croft Riots

May 26, 2011

A small branch of the supermarket Tesco opened in Stokes Croft, a neighbourhood in Bristol in April. This was not a giant hypermarket, it was a Tesco Express, something like Apu’s Quik-E-Mart in The Simpsons.

Riot damaged Tesco Express

Some residents in the area were horrified. They claimed that the new store would destroy existing small businesses, and that “big capitalism” was being imposed on them. Their opinions were not taken seriously, and the opening of the new store went ahead.

Those opposed to the store have this to say:

Within a week of Tesco opening its doors Stokes Croft has found itself the focal point of serious violence and confrontation. Over the last few years our beloved community has undergone an amazing home grown resurgence. We are therefore devastated that Tesco’s refusal to listen to what the majority of local people want has resulted in our vibrant, peaceful community being subject to such a sad state of affairs.

This “majority” decided that violence was the best method of enforcing their wishes, so they took to the streets. Their website goes on:

We are also deeply saddened to witness the reality that we live in society in which young people feel the only way to see justice done is to throw rocks. The reality is the government / corporations / media have created this society and are now trying to blame young people for the mess they have created. What future can we hope for if corporations are allowed to continue to dictate governments? If their insatiable appetite for profit is allowed to reign supreme?

Clashes between protesters and police left many injured and extensive damage to property, including to the disputed store.

What bothers me about this is that the protesters are either lying about their motives or they show an almost unbelievable ignorance of economic forces.

If they are truly in the majority, they could easily close the store down simply by not shopping there. The store would lose money, and Tesco, with its “insatiable appetite for profit” would close its doors and try again elsewhere.

But I suspect that they are not in any sort of majority and they wish to impose their political agenda on everyone else through the use of force. There may well be a silent majority of residents in the area who would appreciate the convenience of being able to buy reasonably priced goods at the new store, and the protesters are well aware of this fact.

This is morally indefensible and I hope the Avon and Somerset constabulary stand firm in their commitment to uphold the law.

What future can we hope for if a few malcontents are allowed to dictate, by violence and coercion, to corporations and governments?

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Finger Trouble

April 7, 2011

Ever since I was a small child I have had the conviction that my life would end on some scaffold or other at the hands of a public executioner. I suspect that the reason for this is my short temper–there have been many occasions on which I have experienced a strong desire to commit murder, but I have hitherto successfully managed to keep axe and machete out of the skulls of the imbeciles who plague my life.

If I were executed, I would at least like to have the satisfaction of committing the actual crime first. It must be awful to stand on the trapdoor with the hangman’s noose about one’s neck, and know that one is innocent of the crime for which one is being executed, not to mention the bitterness of knowing that the real criminal has enjoyed the thrill of committing his crime without being asked to pay the price. We know that this has happened in the past: the hapless Timothy Evans hanged for the murders committed by Christie at 10 Rillington Place, and the innocent Hauptmann broiled in the electric chair for the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby[1] are two examples that spring to mind.

We hope that these examples of judicial murder are isolated, one-in-a-million freaks of misadventure that are, with forensic technology advancing apace, not to be repeated. However, a piece of research has recently come to my attention that, if its data accurately reflect reality, means that these sorts of errors may have been and may still be far commoner than previously thought. The paper, Contextual information renders experts vulnerable to making erroneous identifications by Itiel E. Dror, David Charlton and Ailsa E. Peron of the University of Southampton, casts chilling doubt on the value of evidence that has been regarded as the “gold standard” of forensic evidence—fingerprints.

What they did was take five fingerprint experts from various agencies and give each of them a pair of fingerprints (latent and a rolled exemplar) that they had each several years before found to be a match. The experts were told that the latent print was one lifted from the suitcase used in the Madrid train bombings and the rolled print was that of Brandon Mayfield, who had been wrongfully arrested for the crime but had since been cleared. Four of the experts changed their minds and ruled that the prints were not a match (they actually were a match, and had been verified blind by two other experts).

Another more comprehensive study had similar results:

Despite the absence of objective standards, scientific validation, and adequate statistical studies, a natural question to ask is how well fingerprint examiners actually perform. Proficiency tests do not validate a procedure per se, but they can provide some insight into error rates. In 1995, the Collaborative Testing Service (CTS) administered a proficiency test that, for the first time, was “designed, assembled, and reviewed” by the
International Association for Identification (IAI). The results were disappointing. Four suspect cards with prints of all ten fingers were provided together with seven latents. Of 156 people taking the test, only 68 (44%) correctly classified all seven latents.

Overall, the tests contained a total of 48 incorrect identifications. David Grieve, the editor of the Journal of Forensic Identification, describes the reaction of the forensic community to the results of the CTS test as ranging from “shock to disbelief,” and added:

“Errors of this magnitude within a discipline singularly admired and respected for its touted absolute certainty as an identification process have produced chilling and mind-numbing realities. Thirty-four participants, an incredible 22% of those involved, substituted presumed but false certainty for truth. By any measure, this represents a profile of practice that is unacceptable and thus demands positive action by the entire community.”[2]

These studies show that fingerprinting, far from being the objective, scientific discipline that we thought it was, is in fact subject to the prejudices of the analysts charged with comparing the latent and exemplar prints. Every single conviction that has hinged on fingerprint evidence is suspect in the light of this research, and the results of the studies demand an overhaul of the methodology of analysing fingerprints.

I have never believed that the portrayal of fingerprint comparison as depicted in television programs like CSI are accurate. (A computer flashes prints on the screen, then beeps and flashes “Affirmative” annoyingly until someone shouts, “Eureka, we have a match!”) I did, however, think that there was some sort of scientific rigour in that the person doing the analysis would at least be insulated from the context of the case, in other words they would be given the prints and no other information, so their decision would be based solely on the prints and not on anyone else’s opinion as to whether or not a match is expected.

Another problem with fingerprints is that there are methods of planting a fingerprint on a surface near which the finger in question has never been. An example was uncovered in the Inge Lotz murder trial, where the breathtakingly incompetent police tried to plant Fred Van der Vyfer’s fingerprint on a plastic DVD case in Inge Lotz’s Stellenbosch flat in an attempt to place him at the murder scene. Fortunately for Fred, the dimwitted flatfeet had lifted the print from a curved substrate and planted it on the flat DVD case, which was obvious to the FBI experts hired by the defence, and Fred was acquitted.

So when I do inadvertently leave my thumbprint on the Kenwood Chef I use to convert you into dogfood (you know who you are), I’ll be able to so discredit the evidence that I’m quite sure I’ll get off scot free. You don’t feel so smugly secure now, do you?

[1] No one has officially exonerated Hauptmann, but the obviously fabricated “evidence” that secured his conviction leave very little doubt that he was innocent.

[2] Zabell, Sandy. “Fingerprint Evidence”. Journal of Law and Policy.

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