Friday, 29 August 2008

Not just the Lego Builder's Club

So apparently, it's illegal to "profess" that one belongs to a proscribed organisation and what's more, it has been since the 1970's. So just by saying, "I'm a member of the 17 November Revolutionary Organisation," I could get into heaps of trouble. Maybe if I removed the quote marks from that, I'd actually be professing rather than merely pretending to profess? Let's see...

I'm part of the Abu Sayyaf Group, and have a note to prove it. (Although according to the Home Office list, the "precise aims of Abu Sayyaf Group are unclear".)

On Tuesdays, I attend meetings of Al Gurabaa ("Al Gurabaa is a splinter group of Al-Muajiroon" - Al-Muajiroon don't seem to be on the list themselves though. Doesn't matter - I'm not a member of Al-Muajiroon [1].)

I did join Revolutionary Peoples' Liberation Party - Front (or Devrimci Halk Kurtulus Partisi - Cephesi) for a while, but being a spliter-of-a-splinter-of-a-splinter, they ran out of beer waaaay to soon.

Coming a bit closer to home, I was briefly a member of Cumann na mBan until my wig fell off and someone pointed out how deep my voice was.

All of which begins to sound like a challenge: how many proscribed organisations can one person belong to? Is there a record? Professing membership of ALL of them would be relatively easy (if illegal), given that there's only around 60-odd in total. But to actually BE a member of all 60 - to have a wallet with 60 membership cards, to know 60 secret handshakes, to have 60 lapel badges - that'd be way cool. Maybe a good stunt for Mark Thomas now that SOCPA's on the way out?

To be serious for a minute, proscribing groups is pretty serious. Although it can be as mild as "ostracism" according to the OED, in this context it's more like declaring them enemies of the state, saying these people have given up any right to exist. To arrest somebody for killing, shooting, bombing, gassing etc. civilians without an EXTREMELY good reason, is of course a Good Thing. If you kill because there's a voice in your head telling you to, that's sad & troubling & probably need psychiatric intervention - but you still need arresting. But if you call that voice "God" or justify the killing politically, then what's the difference? Murder is murder. Calling a murderer a terrorist is just glorifying terrorism, isn't it?

I was also a member of the Lego Builder's Club, c.1980-1982.

[1] Spelled the way the Home Office do, Google can only find Al-Muajiroon as a proscribed organisation. Wikipedia has Al-Muhajiroun as nasty but defunct. So panic over.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Tim Spicer, OBE

If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire Colonel Tim Spicer. Well, finding him shouldn't be too hard: he's here, staring moodily into the middle distance. Hiring him may cost you a few bob though.

According to my faded copy of the Grauniad, Aegis got paid nearly 300 million US dollars to run a massive primate army in Iraq. Imagine how many chimpanzees, monkeys and baboons you could hire for 300 million dollars worth of bananas... Now, bananas cost 77p per kilo from Tesco's and the exchange rate is currently a shade over 50p a dollar. So I calculate that $293m buys 192,045,766 kilos of bananas. Say 2 kilos per day per monkey, for 10 years of primate security, you could get over 25,000 monkeys. I know Iraqi insurgents are tough, but I'd certainly run away from 25000 well-motivated monkeys.

Or maybe the Archbishops of York and Canterbury could split it, getting $150 million each? Those crooks could be handy in a fight I suppose, though why primate armies are so important are beyond me.

Much as I applaud loyalty to ones staff, standing by people convicted of murder and insisting that they were just doing their job doesn't endear Mr Spicer to me. Nor does selling arms to extremly unstable countries in Africa and the Pacfic. Suing said governments when they fail to cough up is really taking the piss, though I see that Julius Chan has since been re-elected as an MP in Papua New Guinea, so neither side really wins there.

Just to clarify, the Oxford English Dictionary says: "Mercenary (n) A person who works merely for money or other material reward; a hireling. In later use ... a person whose actions are motivated primarily by personal gain, often at the expense of ethics. ...Chiefly and now only: spec. a soldier paid to serve in a foreign army or other military organization." Sounds like our Mr Spicer.

Puuting all of that to one side, $293m buys you some mighty final legal representation, from those lovely people at Schillings (so called because that's how much they'd sell their grandmother for - boom boom!). Some former ambassador wins University Challenge and later says he's going to publish a book about Tim Spicer, mercenaries, and suchlike, and Mr Spicer runs to his lawyers who start pulling hair and scratching.

Anyway, how the hell can a mercenary get an OBE? Or perhaps I'm being naive. But if we can take back Mugabe's knighthood, why not Mr Spicer's trinket?

PS Bonus not-made-up-fact: Aegis was apparently underwritten (in part) by Frederick Forsyth, which is just perfect. What kind of mercenary army would have been underwritten by JK Rowling? Jeffrey Archer? Roger Hargreaves? ("Mr Shooty stopped and searched an unarmed teenager, then shot him in the back as he ran away. Naughty Mr Shooty!")

PPS And don't forget those bananas would get you 1.5 million Tesco Clubcard points, which, among many other options, would buy you 3.5 million Air Miles, which would be enough to fly the monkeys and their bananas pretty much anywhere.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Recursive Schisming

In the beginning, the established Christian denomination in Scotland was the Church of Scotland. Lots of people were unhappy and left to form the Free Church of Scotland in 1843. Frankly, I find it hard to get excited about why they split, but it was something about the relationship between church and state. Then, the Free Church of Scotland merged with the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland (in 1900) to form the United Free Church of Scotland. Or rather, most of it did. Some congregations insisted on remaining outside, apparently retaining the name "Free Church of Scotland". Being rather small in number, they became (perhaps affectionately) known as the "Wee Frees". Around the same time however, an even smaller group of congregations (one minister, actually) split from the Free Church to form the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. These are, of course, known as the Wee Wee Frees. As far as I can tell, each sect spends most of the time pointing out why all the other indistinguishable sects are wrong. Forget big questions like whether transubstantiation is "real" or not; these guys bicker about whether you can get the bus to chapel on a Sunday.

Personally, I want to join the Wee Wee Frees, just so I can then split and form the Wee Wee Wee Frees. I shall declare a new doctrine, that of recursive schisming, whereby members must evangelise and convert others to the true beliefs of the Wee Wee Wee Frees... and then split to form the Wee^(n+1) Frees. The prophesies of this newly-made-up religion will only be fulfilled when everyone on earth is a member of their own sect.

At this point, I was going to make some obvious Pythonesque joke about Judea, but a careless Google-search took me to a Wikipedia entry headed:
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine
Not to be confused with Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command
At which point satire becomes pointless and life a little bit depressing.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Things I learned from playing Civ4 - part two of an occasional series

"If you speak the truth, have a foot in the stirrup." - Turkish Proverb

This is often misinterpreted as meaning that if you are going to tell someone a home truth, then it is best to be ready for a swift get-away. But I'd like to unpack it a little further and share the fruits of my research...

Ten years before writing the liberal loveliness that is "The West Wing", Aaron Sorkin wrote the play (later made into a film) 'A Few Good Men', including the famous dialogue:
Tom Cruise: I want the truth!
Jack Nicholson: You can't handle the truth!
Nicholson (or his character - I forget which) then shouts a lot, seeming to forget that despite other faults, Tom Cruise isn't actually deaf. As an aside, Cruise said in a recent interview, "When I was about seven, I had been labeled dyslexic", and claimed that Scientology cured him of that. Presumably they replaced the "dyslexic" label with the "gullible" one... Ithankyou.

Anyway, Sorkin is clearly suggesting here that mere hands are incapable of grasping such a fundamental substance as "truth".

An earlier version of the proverb continues: '...and shout!'. The meaning of this becomes clearer when one recalls that the stirrup (or stapes) is a small bone in the middle ear, that connects the chochlea to the eardrum, via the anvil and hammer (or incus and malleus respectively, in posh). Clearly, if you have your foot inside someone's middle ear, then you are going to have to shout in order to make yourself heard when speaking the truth. On reflection, the truth or otherwise of your words are probably not of utmost import if you have your foot inside someone's ear. Moving on...

As is often the case with proverbs, this was handed down orally for many years, like a game of Chinese Whispers. But in Turkish. Further research from Turkey was needed, and it is now generally accepted that Noah's ark landed in what is now modern Turkey. Contemporary documents reveal that Noah and his extended family were big fans of dairy-based puddings, on account of spending a long time at sea with seven cows. Noah also liked a tipple, to put it midly, (Genesis 9:20-21) which combined with never getting his "land legs" back after nigh on 6 months afloat meant that he was a notoriously messy eater. (Though to be fair, he was 600 years old at this point, so probably a bit frail.) "Great walloping scraggles of nurgle!" he would shout (Milligan 6:9) as he smeared custard into his beard. "That's your ear, dad!" his son Japheth would shout. "Left a bit!" Shem would join in. "That's it!" would shout Canaan, his third and least-good son. Thus my research confirms that the original proverb was in fact:
"If the old man has some fool in his stirrup, you'll have to shout very loudly."

I hope this clears up any confusion.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

"I am a Spartacus order." "No, I am a Spartacus order..."

The unsavoury allegations about Alisher Usmanov have been well-publicised, by the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan among others. Nice-guy Usmanov hired nice-guy laywers Schillings to protect him, and they forced a couple of blogs to be removed from the web, hence killing the story dead. A bit. Usmanov's also (maybe) trying to buy Arsenal FC, who are now desperately backtracking, blaming the "wrong sort of millions" or somesuch.

So who are Schillings, and why did their attempt to kill a story instead cause it to mushroom? They're not inexperienced in such matters. In fact, besides claiming credit for "Hasselhoff wins apology from OK!", they also boast of past success regarding "The internet attacker". Their sob story begins:
Our client was the founder and CEO of a financial services company. An anonymous source created a website which accused our client of assault, various financial crimes and unethical behaviour.
Like most people, lawyers are of course paid to do a job, not paid to be nice, so perhaps it's unreasonable to hope that their response was to ask whether their client was guilty of assult or other "unethical" (not to say illegal) behaviour. Then maybe attempt to put his side of a complicated story, or spin the news agenda a bit? No - Schillings take the lawyer-ish way out and kill the story. As they say:
The internet is not lawless. All the laws that apply to traditional publications apply, plus new regulations have been created. In this instance we:
  • applied to Court for a "Spartacus" order requiring the source to identify himself or his ISP and webhost to identify him; and
  • contacted the host, ISP and various search engines advising them that even though the allegations had physically been posted in the US they were defamatory under UK law as they could be accessed here;
  • search engines and ISPs removed the material.
Once the source was outed and starved of the oxygen of publicity, he quickly settled to avoid a defamation claim.
But can you "out" someone and starve them of publicity at the same time? "Hey everyone! Ignore that person! That person we're pointing to over there!"

However, it is worth being reminded that "The internet is not lawless"...

Packets of tumbleweed get switched past... a man appears in a #000000 hat, riding a #000000 horse into the domain. Doors and other portals slam close and Windows are shuttered. The terrified townsfolk cower, peering out between hubs and from behind hyperlinks. Is he threatening wikivandalism? Denial of service? He sure looks mean...
'Not so fast,' says, straightening its #FFFFFF hat while cocking its gun. The man under the #000000 hat spins round, his right hand reaching for his perl-scripted revolver, but that's the last thing he ever does. Two shots ring out, the stranger pauses, frowns, then falls to the floor, his server crashing for the last time. No reboot hill for him. mounts its #FFFFFF horse and rides into the peaceful sunset... The inevtiable comedy-drunk staggers out, leading the grateful crowds on to Main Street, shouting "Who was that stranger? He saved us all!" As if in answer, the wind whips a torn sheet of fanfold paper. The bank manager grabs it and reads out loud:
10 PRINT "I am a Spartacus order! No, "
20 GOTO 10

Thursday, 20 September 2007

I have an enormous optic chiasm

Paul Pierre Broca was a French surgeon and anatomist, with degrees in literature, maths and physics too. In 1861, he described two patients who had lost the ability to speak. After they died, he examined their brains, figured out which bits were knackered and planted his flag there. Recently, these brains, which had been pickled in alcohol (which I'm sure partly explains the original loss of speaking) were scanned using new technology, and it was found that the damage was NOT in Broca's area, but was quite widespread and different in each case.

So should Broca's area be renamed? Or even moved? Mais non! as he would have said, being French and all. For this is the man who also proposed "Broca's rule", viz. that a man should weigh as many kilos as he is centimetres more than one meter. By jingo, he's right! Which means that every centimetre of my body, starting roughly with the tops of my thighs, must weight about one kilogram. I'm not sure whether to be horrified or delighted, so I shall be neither.

A more contemporary brain expert is Dan Hodgins of Flint, Michigan, where he is some kind of educational advisor. He's recently been noted for his claim that in girls' brains, "the crockus is four times larger than in boys". Some people seem surprised by this claim based on the trifling technicality that it doesn't even exist. When pressed, Hodgins claimed it was named after a Dr Alfred Crockus. Who also doesn't exist.

However, I'm with Hodgins on this one: if we limit our claims about neuroscience merely to those brain regions that exist, then we are hobbling ourselves necessarily. This needless entrammelling is a classical sign of people with an under-developed habenular nucleus. Those of us with larger habenular nuclei, which I'm sure includes Hodgins, are quite prepared to go beyond mere observation of reality when we need to win an argument. For example, I have an enormous optic chiasm. If you stand on one side, you can't even see the other side. Admittedly, that's partly due to the high cloud density in the area because of excess moisture in my infundibulum. What they don't teach you at school (and, frankly, shouldn't) is the importance of maintaining a tiny uncinate fasciculus. This can be achieved through a series of meditation/filing exercises: just close your eyes, and visually sort all of your body parts into alphabetic order for 15-20 minutes a day. I do. It does me wonders. To do the rest of the world wonders, I recommend changing your olfactory bulb if you haven't already done so, especially in these times of climate change worries. Use a low-energy replacement, such as a middle temporal gyrus, or even an inferior temporal gyrus, if you don't mind making that little extra sacrifice for the good of humankind.

Thank you.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Three hundred and eleven

It has recently come to my attention that the number three hundred and eleven has a certain significance.

The London Monument was built as a memorial for the Great Fire, built so that if it toppled over in just the right direction, then the top would land on the exact spot where the fire started at a bakery in Pudding Lane. However, it was also designed to allow scientific studies on atmospheric pressure. Specifically, each step is six inches high, so you can walk up carring a barometer and calibrate it, for instance. Point being: there are exactly 311 steps.

Elsewhere and earlier, the Roman emporer Galerius lead the persecution of Christians for many years. In 308CE, he issued an edict stating that *everyone* had to offer sacrifice to the gods, "and that all provisions in the markets should be sprinkled with sacrificial wine." This is of course against mainstream Christian practice, so they had to sin or starve .
This practice finally ended when Galerius changed his mind and decided to allow Christianity to flourish unhindered, as long as they agreed not to destablise the state. He did this on his deathbed, issuing his "Edict of Toleration" on May 5th. The year? 311.

Then things got interesting. In a foreshadowing of post-war France (where Nazi collaborators were hounded), many Christians had helped the Roman persecution of their fellow believers, even going as far as helping to burn Christian writing. There was then a debate about whether they could ever be forgiven for such terrible apostasy, and one particular sect was founded which refused to forgive them at all. This was Donatism, founded by a chap called Donatus Magnus. The year? 311 (still).

Elsewhere and later, in the USA in fact, the police use codes on their radios for reasons I've never understood. Why not say "this guy's drunk" rather than "this guy's 390"? Does it save time? Reduce ambiguity? Anyway, code 311 is for indecent exposure. I'm sure you can see where I'm going with all of this.

Meantime, the National Center for Biotechnology Information is a fantastic source of biomedical information, all free thanks to the US government. One part of this is a list of biological compounds, each of which is given a unique compound id, or CID. So what, I hear you ask, has a CID of 311? It's Citric acid, as if I need spell it out. Or 2-hydroxypropane-1,2,3-tricarboxylic acid if you want to get technical.

So to summarise: Wren's phallic monument to a careless baker exposes the indecency of tolerating citric acid as a flavouring for doughnuts.