Odds and ends

Surprising facts for the day:

1. There are people who seriously claim that Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades led directly to the September 11 attacks.

2. The Biased BBC crew are willing to slate their own beloved Tories if it means they can dig the knife a little deeper into Auntie.

3. Exxon still hasn’t paid compensation for the Valdez spill.

4. Pirate attacks (real ones with boats, not public reactions to music industry greed) are on the up. I blame the movies.

5. Traffic, the Hollywood movie based on TV miniseries Traffik, has been made into a TV miniseries.

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It’s murder, I tells ya

Chris Lightfoot wonders why homicide rates in the UK have risen over the last 50 years. Liberals, conservatives and libertarians can give you a wide range of answers to this question, but none of them match the data to a particularly convincing degree.

My thought on this topic was provoked by two things: Chris’s comment "murders are typically reported, so the recorded-crime figures are likely accurate here", and the long-overdue disgracing of Witchfinder Pursuivant Sir Roy Meadow.

For those of you not acquainted with Sir Roy, he’s a paediatrician who managed to persuade the English legal system that when more than two of a parent’s children died of cot death, infanticide was the only plausible explanation.

As a result of Sir Roy’s discrediting, 258 deaths over the last 10 years that were classified as infanticides will now be re-evaluated. If it turns out that these deaths were natural, then the average annual homicide rate during the 1990s will fall by around 3%: still a very long way from a sufficient explanation.

Does Miss Marple hold the clue to the remaining cases? In the (apparently unlikely) event that Sir Roy’s dead babies were in fact murdered, they would be just one class of homicides that – but for advances in science and detection – would previously have been grouped as deaths from natural causes.

Other examples of such deaths could include cases with dissolved bodies, poisoned spouses, smothered elderly relatives, faked suicides, and mysterious disappearances – in effect, the collected works of Agatha Christie. Advances in forensic science, detailed surveillance, and the wider use of post-mortem examinations could well serve to increase the number of reported homicides without any corresponding increase in the real murder rate.

I’m far from sure that this is the explanation: for a start, I suspect that most homicides are entirely boring, with not only a clear victim but also a clear killer. Nonetheless, it would be interesting to see whether the rise in homicides has been concentrated on Agatha (or John, come to that) Christie-type mysterious cases, or cases with obvious victims who are discovered quickly. The former would be evidence in favour of my hypothesis…

Sadly, I have no idea where one might find this information, other than trawling through public records offices.

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Foolish prediction

The Sun claims it has has acquired a leaked version of the Hutton Report, which clears Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell, lightly censures Geoff Hoon and the MOD, criticised David Kelly, and utterly slates the BBC.

This hasn’t yet appeared on the web – I’m listening to / watching the story now on ITV News. And I’m a little sceptical that the report’s going to turn entirely out like that in real life.

Who does Rupert Murdoch like? Tony Blair (more or less). Who does Rupert Murdoch hate? The Beeb. Who desperately needs a vote of confidence, after winning the tuition fees vote with a margin of five? Tony Blair.

Maybe I’m too cynical – then again, that would imply that it’s possible to be too cynical about the Sun… I await the real report tomorrow with some interest.

Update (Jan 28): apparently the Sun wasn’t lying after all, just exuberant… Interestingly, the BBC’s story covering the event blames the BBC much more than the FT’s coverage.

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Record stupidity

At the weekend, I met up with a friend from university who’s now head online music strategist at a major record label.

This is amusing in itself: admittedly, the relevant friend is a couple of years older than me, music is is a young-ish industry, and young people are more likely to get the whole Internet paradigm – but given the obvious importance of online to the music industry’s future, I’d still be wary of putting a 27 year old ex-management consultant in charge of the whole shebang…

More amusing still was his revelation of quite how clueless the company’s senior managers actually are. I don’t just mean their reluctance to listen to anything he says (my friend: “we’re completely screwed unless we can make our whole catalogue available legally to buy online more conveniently than people can download it without paying”; his boss: “no way, that’ll cannibalize CD sales”).

No, the music industry’s absurdity can be reduced to one meeting featuring my friend and a bunch of senior executives. Senior executive to friend: “You’re low-paid like our customers – would you download music illegaly to save money? Would you be willing to pay up?”.

This is suboptimal team management, obviously. But it’s elevated to the realms of utter insanity by the fact that said friend is being paid around $100,000 a year. Why, that’ll barely even buy you a yacht these days…

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On arbitraryness

Abortion is a horribly complicated moral issue; I used to argue about it a lot and now I don’t: partly because the result tends to be more rancorous than I like in a debate, partly because people’s opinions are far more set in stone than with almost any other issue, but mostly because there’s very little logical basis to hold -any- debating position.

This isn’t entirely true. There is a position that, although I find it objectionable, is internally coherent: there’s an obvious difference between a fertilized and an unfertilized ovum. This is the only clear “is / is not” step in the foetal development process.

After that, there’s an Old Testament-derived belief that the soul appears 14 days after conception (which has driven the UK legislation that embryos created for scientific research must be destroyed within 14 days), but this is fairly hard to justify empirically. Going onwards, the only remaining “is/is not” event is birth.

As Aussie philosopher Peter Singer pointed out some time ago, the only physical difference between an unborn and a born child is its geographical location. BMA ethical committee adviser John Harris has clearly been reading his Singer, making the same point to a House of Commons committee.

Professor Harris’ point has stoked outrage amongst antiabortion types. Which is odd, given that they claim to believe exactly the same thing: that there is no moral difference between killing a foetus and killing a baby. They ought to be pleased that a prominent government adviser agrees with their terminology.

The outrage that greeted Professor Harris’ remarks highlights something that makes the abortion debate particularly fruitless: on an emotional level, very few people (including the pro-lifers and the philosophers) seriously believe that killing a foetus and killing a born baby are morally identical. Yet at the same time, very few people seriously believe that destroying a fertilized ovum and killing a 26-week foetus are morally identical.

Since the main point of a moral system is coherently to codify our intuitive beliefs (maybe I’m being overly positivist here, but this is broadly the conclusion that I drew from studying ethics), any attempt to base your moral take on abortion on either of the clear cut-off points is comprehensively fucked. The only option is to say “err, it’s some point in between” – and this point is necessarily arbitrary.

This is why arguments against total pro-lifers are fruitless: despite being demonstrably wrong, they’ve got the logical high ground. I guess one possible arguing tactic is to use the comparable example of the age of consent… “there’s no physical difference between a 15 year old and a 16 year old, so having an arbitrary age of consent is stupid and wrong. Sexual activity should be allowed at the clear biological cut-off point: the age of puberty” isn’t an argument with great intuitive moral appeal, despite having some logical merit.

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OK, so I was wrong…

Britain has also gone made re airline bomb jokes. Apologies to Yanks everywhere for suggesting the problem was with their country, not with the officious box-tickers who “work” in airports (why is absolutely everyone involved with the aviation industry a useless wanker? This is truly one of the great mysteries of all time…)

Still on the same story, if EasyJet refuse to let people board short-haul flights when they check in 25 minutes before take-off, they entirely -deserve- their planes blowing up.

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Violent crime down 3% – hooray!

Of course, that’s not going to be how this story gets reported, anywhere. It isn’t how journalists’ minds work – so even the BBC quotes the hopelessly unreliable recorded crime figures, not the much more accurate BCS ones. Gazing into my magic crystal ball, I predict that a huge number of commentators will also ignore the BCS.

Over the next few days, many woolly liberals will be blamed; many prison sentences will be called for; many spurious links with drug decriminalisation will be drawn; many borderline-racist statements about young black men will be made; many single parents will be libelled; many youths of today will be despaired of; Tony Martin will be eulogised; and many foolish people will become more afraid of the outside world.

This is unfortunate.

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Free software saps our precious bodily fluids

It’s far from clear that this letter from Darl McBride, chief chancer and scam artist at software-company-turned-professional-plaintiff SCO, to assorted Congressmen on the evils of free software is genuine.

Certainly, it reads like a parody. Highlights include:
– free software allows foreigners to use American technology without paying top dollar, saluting the flag, etc
– free software could be used by terrorists
– free software is a form of predatory pricing (the question of ‘by whom’ isn’t addressed…)
– free content on the Internet destroyed the music industry, and the same could happen in software

I especially like the final one: clearly there are actually people who believe the music industry’s woes stem from KaZaa and Morpheus, not from its own incompetence. Such endearing naivité is impressive.

Although cheering for the underdog is normally de riguer in such cases, I can’t wait to see IBM bury SCO alive in this and next year’s court proceedings. Not so much because of Mr McBride’s xenophobia and his view of free software as a moral issue (!), but because of their utter lack of anything resembling a case, an argument, or evidence in their favour…

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Wanted: expert with no experience

According to the Times’ Michael Gove, rail privatisation in the UK was a great success. Indeed, on the metrics he cites, it was. Pre-Hatfield, punctuality was no worse than under BR, trains were cleaner, food improved, and the staff became a bit more customer-focused. Some new trains also materialised.

However, many believe the network’s collapse wasn’t due to Mr Gove’s communist saboteurs, but rather to the fact that the cash savings being made by Railtrack up to 2000 were at the expense of maintenance spending. As any engineer will tell you (come to that, as you’ll know if you’ve owned a house or car), you can get away with not spending on renewal in the medium term – but at some point, you’re likely to see a catastrophic systems failure.

It’s possible that this isn’t a good model to describe the 1996-2000 period in rail maintenance, and that Railtrack was actually spending more wisely on renewals than its predecessors, rather than not at all.

The problem in evaluating these explanations is that (+/-)everyone who knows enough about the rail industry to know whether Railtrack’s maintenance procedures were adequate has a strong incentive to believe that they weren’t. If you live in a culture where it’s drilled into you that “these procedures must be followed, and anything else is dangerous”, then you’ll tend to regard changes – especially cost-driven ones – as dangerous.

So while I’m strongly tempted to follow the common-sense view that the engineers share (that Railtrack woefully underinvested), I haven’t seen anything that convincingly sets to rest the counterargument. I’d very much like to.

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