Archive for February, 2004 – Story

Some of the Transportation Security Administration’s highly trained security screeners have taken their zeal for total security one step further by apparently attempting to make sure terrorists were not hiding in their heads. Or something.

“The Transportation Security Administration is not saying exactly who x-rayed themselves or when because of privacy reasons, but a source tells 9NEWS the six screeners were working at passenger checkpoints when they decided to x-ray their own bodies.

Like a piece of luggage, the screeners would have rolled down the conveyor belt into the opening, about 2.5 feet high and a foot and a half wide.

“There’s enough training, enough education available in the public domain, let alone the circumstances of the TSA, to know this is a foolhardy thing to do,” said David Forbes, president of Boydforbes, Inc. “The questions that come out of this though are – what is the level of supervision?”

Indeed. Apparently they wanted to know “what their brains looked like” – some churlish and cruel cynics might suggest it came as a surprise to discover a brain, but the Ranter eschews such petty vitriol. A TSA spokesman, Mike Fierberg, said “It was just someone doing something stupid.” Indeed. One wonders if they would recognise a weapon were they to come across one…”Hey, that’s a really neat Osama bin Laden costume, sir!”


That Great BBC plan!

The Conservatives have issued a new “report” on the future of the BBC. It was prepared by one David Elstein, the former chief executive of Channel 5, and was commissioned while IDS was still in charge. Many people forget just how aggressively US Republican the IDS Tories were – very close to the neocons, enjoying dinner dates with Wolfowitz, bashing public broadcasting – and this might be a salutary reminder, now the BBC front has temporarily gone quiet. We ought to think why – is it simply exhaustion, or did the unexpected violence of the public reaction play a role? It seems at least to have influenced Michael Howard, who reportedly decided to distance the party from Elstein’s proposals on the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

Elstein was at pains to argue that he did not suggest that the BBC should be abolished. However, his proposals are so drastic that one question is enough to explode this – what would be left? Apart from abolishing the licence fee, he suggests that the Board of Governors would go, that the BBC’s production activities would be shut down, that its commercial activities would be privatised, that its TV channels would be privatised and that money from the “voluntary subscription” that would replace the licence fee would be distributed by a public broadcasting authority to any channel this body felt was worthy. What would be left? Is this not abolition?

Radio would supposedly survive, although exactly how without any apparent funding is not clear to say the least. And why? Surely not because privatising Radio 4 would make Conservative voters fall off their perches with apoplexy? No. Who could possibly attribute self-interested motives to Mr. Elstein? Perish the thought! After all, his plan would quite incidentally eliminate commercial TV’s main competitor whilst handing it sizeable sums of cash, not to mention the opportunities offered by the sudden lay-off of masses of trained BBC staff – what could possibly motivate a commercial TV executive to advocate such charity to his own business? At the same time, it is hard to see the logical rigour of classical Conservative thought here. Why should any State funding go into the sector at all? Is the proposed PBA not just another quango, a “national board” like those cursed by the Tory policy documents prepared for 1979?

The answer is not hard to spot. If the licence fee were to go, and a voluntary subscription were to be introduced, who would pay? Mr. Elstein would doubtless point to cable and satellite TV, but these have the difference that they actually offer goods in return for payment. Given that the BBC would disappear from television on the date of privatisation, who would bother to pay for just another cable channel? Apparently, this PBA’s budget would be supported by those who out of altruism or more likely inertia failed to stop paying their TV licences. Clearly it would dwindle rapidly. In the first few years, I suppose, there would be enough for a handsome bonus to those firms who bought the BBC’s assets. But within a fairly short period of time, the funds available would have become insignificant.

And, if there was no money in it, who would bother to apply for funding for “worthy” programming? Not when they could run I’m A Celebrity: Watch Me Shag! Sponsored by Really Cheap Aerosol Cheese with much better advertising rates. It is a sop – pure bait and switch. Even if something was permitted to survive, it would be unable to produce its own programmes, and must needs buy in. Neither would it be able to sell them. I am sure these freedoms would be maintained for Five. It would not be able to engage in commerce, and would not receive much if any state funding. Not many voluntary subs there.

As a final marker of nonsense, Mr. Elstein appealed to what I call “Vulgar Globalism” on (ironically) the BBC last night. This is the practice of announcing that your proposal is necessary and inevitable “in a globalised world” or “in the internet age” without giving any connection between the two. He declared that, in the internet age in a globalised world or words to that effect, it was ridiculous to have paper TV licences “when non-payers can be cut off instantly”. Note the 2 key logical flaws – first, that it becoming easier to collect the licence fee is a reason to scrap it, and second, that an argument concerning administrative technicalities is an argument against the principle of public broadcasting. Nonsense.

BBC NEWS | Business | UK 2003 growth revised up to 2.3%

So what did happen to all the recession porn we were subjected to last year? Within a week, we see forecasts for growth above 3% this year and now upward revisions from last year. The forecast range everyone said was a wild gamble was 2-2.5%. This puts it slap in the bullseye. Oh well, another mutt in the non-barkers…

I know it’s not “we” any more. I know I should be really worried about the trade deficit and consumer debt. But, what – nine months on? – it’s still hard to kick the Labour habit.

Rybkin ‘Best Speaker in the History of the Duma’

Interesting biography of the disappearing candidate.

“In his verbal attacks on President Vladimir Putin, stern-voiced presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin laces harsh rhetoric with poetry and flowery metaphors. But his oration skills are hardly an advantage when he is effectively banned from Russian radio and television.

The Central Elections Commission prohibited Rybkin last week from participating in televised debates via satellite from London, where he recently took refuge after a bizarre disappearance.

Rybkin, a leader of the Liberal Russia party, said in a telephone interview that ad agencies also have refused to produce radio and television advertisements for him because they fear retribution from authorities.”

Indeed. In the meantime, a number of candidates are going to pull out of the election on the grounds that state and state-influenced media coverage, chicanery and the like have rendered the elections a joke. Sergei Dorenko holds that Russia under Vladimir Putin has become a neo-feudal state, with oligarchs and presidential governors playing the role of the barons. My own view was running along the lines of a shift from industrialised anarchy under Yeltsin to police democracy under Putin, but I feel that feudalism is probably a more useful description than any wibble about police democracy. Although fake democracy seems to be one of the main trends of our times, I think Dorenko is right that a form of modern feudalism suits the situation in Russia better. And that has some important implications:

“The middle class is the only section of the population capable of building the social institutions that Russia needs. Only the middle class is passionate enough in its desire to free itself from the yoke of the bureaucracy’s feudal lords to mobilize the passive, abused masses. But the middle class is being led down a blind alley by a president who seems concerned with nothing but his own approval ratings.”

In the interests of good practice, I recently had this blog checked with an XHTML 1.0 validator – only to discover that there were supposedly 463 errors (57 pages of printout) in it. But it worked. Now, after several days of poring over the code, the error count is down to 308 and we have lost the clock. Changing everything back has not restored it. Further, the validator throws a wobbly every time it encounters a blockquote tag , but the replacement (q) doesn’t actually work, hence all the neatly arranged quotes in the Ranter passim have gone odd.

So – what is the point? The closer to standard, the worse the performance. And the fact that the first 16 errors occur in code that isn’t in my template – in fact, that can only be in the banner ad – is simply ridiculous. If we must have ads, can they not inflict dodgy code on us?

PS: now down to 271…


An excellent blog has begun linking to us. Thanks

A Secret Hunt Unravels in Afghanistan (

The Washington Post has a fascinating series of articles on the secret war between an obscure sub-group of the CIA and al-Qa’ida before the 11th September attacks, when counter-terrorism wasn’t fashionable. “The rest of the CIA and the intelligence community looked on our efforts as eccentric and at times fanatic,” recalled a former chief of the bin Laden unit. “It was a cult,” agreed a U.S. official who dealt with them. “Jonestown,” said another person involved, asked to sum up the unit’s atmosphere. “I outlawed Kool-Aid.”

Wasn’t that clever? Not, of course, that it did any good, but with that kind of support from above they didn’t have that much chance. Some of their schemes were a little wild, too, like the one involving imprisoning him in a cave, or sending a party of Ahmed Shah Massoud’s army on mules to plaster his camp with katyushas. I suppose they were probably seen as cowboys attached to The Company’s heroic myth of the Afghan wars, years after the medals had been handed out and everyone had gone home.

Excellent article via Calpundit: The Seven Signs of Bogus Science. An amusing work prepared by a scientist who was asked to prepare some criteria to guide judges in evaluating allegedly scientific evidence. If you’re short of time, the signs are as follows: 1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.

2. The discoverer claims that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress their work.

3. The scientific effect described is always at the very limit of detection.

4. Evidence for the discovery is anecdotal.

5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries.

6. The discoverer has worked in isolation.

7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.

All very wise. I wonder if it would be possible to elaborate a similar set of markers for the reliability of web rumours? After all, discussion forums, blogs, news sites and the like are running over with extremists who validate their crazed rants by referring to what they claim are authoritative sources. The point being that very few people ever follow the link or wonder where the astonishing news came from. If there’s anything that bears this out, it was the “Kerry/Fonda photo” affair – the faked photo was prepared by a bunch of far-right nutters who posted it all over some high-traffic forums. Then it got onto a low quality US news site (NewsMax), and many more linked to their story. Then it burst and hit the mainstream media, oddly enough after it had already been debunked by Newsday. I’m thinking of similarities between dodgy sources, things like the weird way US fringe news sites like NewsMax and WorldNetDaily (another favourite for gun clubbers and conspiracy odds) advertise quack remedies heavily as well as get-rich-quick schemes and the like. Perhaps spam filtering might offer an analogy? (Strangely enough, my stats provider seems to be going that way. I’ve noticed that it tries on occasion to run a dialler, and today’s amusing popup was “Are YOU Stupid? On-Line Personal IQ tests!”)

Come to think of it, here is a provisional version for discussion:1. If the source has dodgy advertising or dodgy web practices, assume the content is dodgy too.

2. Credibility is cumulative – if the rest of its output is crazed, chances are the bit you’re looking at is unreliable as well.

3. Facts and comment.

4. Use the Google principle – links are votes. Cranks and propagandists tend to band together for mutual support.

Well, it would seem that the government hasn’t entirely capitulated to the mob press over putative migrants from the new member states of the European Union. Now, every other country with the paradoxical exception of Denmark has demanded “transitional agreements” allowing them not to let people from the Central European countries in for up to 10 years (note that they felt no such conviction about trade, say), but the UK did not. Now, with two months to go, we seem to be rowing back entirely due to screamer headlines in the loanshark-influenced Sun and the Daily Express (has anyone else got a reason why this has suddenly become an issue?). Apparently, the new entrants will nto be eligible for benefits payment until they have demonstrated 18 months’ habitual residence. Well, this is actually hardly news as the same principle applies to other EU citizens, except that it’s only 6 months. So far, the government has not tried to keep them from working.

Now, I’m not very happy about institutionalising a Europe with first and second class citizens. Neither am I too chuffed about policy by tabloid, nor does the idea of casually ripping up treaty commitments make me warm and fuzzy inside. But if this is as far as it goes, I’ll accept it as a sufficient sop to shoot the hard right’s fox on the matter. Because I think that this will be seen in the future as a dog that didn’t bark. A Fistful of Euros has a good post on the issue: “Several years ago, a study produced by the European Commission projected that 335,000 easterners would go west – and of these, only 35% would be employees. Another report suggested this migration would actually raise the Union’s overall GDP enough to offset the costs, provided the moves are not motivated by welfare benefits.

A spate of similar surveys have yielded numbers ranging from 100,000 to 400,000 migrant workers, which would mean that by 2015-2020, the number of migrant workers living in the “old” EU would amount to only 0.5 to 0.8 percent of the EU’s current population, according to recent report by Katinka Barysch, chief economist at the Centre for European Reform. This is hardly enough to wreck havoc on the job market, considering an estimated 0.2% of current EU residents are easterners already. And many economists, pointing to the effects of the EU’s last round of enlargement, say even these numbers are played up.

Oddly enough, this debate obscures one important fact: Many of the eastern countries, such as the Czech Republic, actually see more immigration than emigration, with workers from Ukraine and other countries further east moving there in search of higher wages and often working illegally. The EU, again fearful of a larger and more porous eastern boundary, is pushing these countries to enact higher obstacles to such immigration..”

I suspect there is empirical strength to this. In Austria in the winter of 2001, I was surprised to learn that the average income in Hungary west of the Danube was higher than that in Kärnten, and that Hungarian economists were concerned that not enough people from the depressed eastern half of the country were moving to the west. Not only that, but some border crossings had more people crossing from Austria to Hungary than vice versa. Anyway, if people don’t come legally then some of them will come illegally, and they are the ones who will end up floating in Morecambe Bay.

Short reflection: why are “New Europeans” plucky, honest toughies standing up to the corrupt oligarchy of the axis of weasels when they are stagging-on round some godforsaken pipeline in south-central Iraq, but “hordes of gypsies flooding in to take our jobs” when they aren’t?