31 October 2005

Higher Education: Nobody's Laughing

Previous Post: University vs Trade

Getting a University education has long been the way to get a good job. However, the governments misguided attempts to force people into universities is having the obvious consequences. A university education as a stepping stone into a job is being washed away; it's becoming a joke. And no-one is laughing, except the politicians.

Not all men (or women) are created equal. Not everyone is a genius. For everyone with an IQ over 150, there must be one with an IQ less than 50. That's why the average IQ is 100 (see Wikipedia entry here.) Wet-finger-in-the-air-guesstimation says that only a quarter of the populace have the required intelligence to go to University and graduate. Intelligence is not the only factor but it's a good indication as to a persons ability to assimilate degree-level information; quoting from the Wiki article, "IQ is strongly correlated with academic success...".

So, as the government force more people into University, they correspondingly want to make sure the move is a success, so they can look good in the Commons. Rather than rely on the abilities of the undergrads, and thereby hugely undermining the whole exercise in the process, they do what politicians do and spin the results. Now, since we're all up to speed on spin, the next generation of Spin Doctors1 go one better and force those marking the exams into giving people "inflated" marks, thereby removing the need to spin (and the responsibility) from the government. Their numbers look good and their hands are clean.

Hopefully, the more technical disciplines (Chemistry, Physics, Medicine!) maintain their entry critera (to prevent unnecessary explosions, if nothing else), which means that embryonic Universitygoers choose something pointless like Media Studies. They get their inflated first year Media Studies results, think "A is good" and press on with the next few years, further indebting themselves in the process. They then all pop out at the end and, if they're lucky, get a job on some pubescent digitial TV station as a lackey on some god-awful reality show. Hmmm, I wonder how much hidden funding flows from the government into the TV networks to fund new digital channels so the media types have something to do in the afternoons?

Rather than further castigate the governments policy of forced university attendance2 (which I've already covered), another thought occurs. Since the laws of economics apply to TV (I really hope they do) as to all companies, then there must be some demand for all this drivel the postgrad media types supply? But where does the demand come from? Has bad TV become self-perpetuating? Are there enough Media grads out there to provide enough demand to keep their fellows busy cranking it out?

Maybe Economics doesn't apply to TV. Maybe the government feels that is sufficiently in control of things that they can spend time subverting economics and giving jobs to the multimedia masses. The one plus side to all this is that talent becomes the stand-out commodity. Just as long as they don't make a bloody TV show about it.

1 No doubt graduates of Spin Medical School.
2 Which replaces National Service. You won't die, but you'll still pay the price.

The day after I originally posted this, the linked article appeared on the BBC. They didn't, however, examine the link between new digitial channels and the spate of media studies grads.

27 October 2005

Return of The Beaver

Reintroduction of species to their previous haunts sounds like a brilliant idea in the squeaky white labs of the scientists and the natural fibre igloos of the environmentalists. However, the real world is considerably less squeaky and tweedy.

The introduction, or re-introduction, of species to an area invariably goes out of control, and they need to introduce some other beastie to do away with the first beastie. The second beastie then eats all the things it isn't supposed to, which usually, tragically and amusingly are even more rare than the things that were introduced in the first place

So the decision to reintroduce beavers to Britain is doomed to disaster. Obviously, the beaver was not their first choice. Wolves and Bears have been mooted over the years, but being large and snarly, the public understandably freaked. So they went with beavers, which are altogether more cuddly. And vegetarian, which keeps the hordes placated.

To illustrate just how stupid this all is, they plan to fence them into a 500 acre site to begin with, while they see how it goes. How typical that they would choose to fence in an animal who is uniquely armed to facilitate the swift destruction of its confines. So, in the event that they go mad on low-grade Britsh trees and become rabid meat-eaters, they'll be on the loose. I can see "Mad Beaver Disease" headlines already. I bet they can transmit tuberculosis as well, which would take the focus of the poor badgers for a while.

Why does Man feel, with everything we have done and seen, that we can work with Nature? Doesn't anyone read the papers? You can't fence living creatures things in, especially ones that eat fences. As Jeff Goldblum prophetically states in Jurassic Park, "Life finds a way".

Since anything big enough to eat beavers has also been eradicated from these shores, their numbers will spiral. Since they're not also introducing predators, it will be down to humans to control numbers. And if the people performing the cull wear the wrong colour jackets, it'll be made illegal. You can't re-introduce part of the food chain without the other parts of the food chain. Their numbers will spiral without natural predators until the point that all our forests have been cut down and made into dams, and then they'll all die. Which will be pleasant. Lots of stagnant pools full of rotting beavers. Mmmm...

The linked article states "beavers could also help keep waterways clear of debris." What? Assuming Sir David Attenborough wasn't lying to me all these years, beavers build dams. Isn't that the opposite of "keeping waterways free of debris"?

Basically, this is a stupid idea.

25 October 2005

Who is Responsible?

The response of the citizens of Key West to the onrushing Hurricane Wilma could be called many things. Brave. Foolhardy. Stupid.

The word I'm going to use is irresponsible. As taxpayers, they have the right to expect that their Federal Government will do everything in its power to rescue them if needs be, and to restore services as soon as possible. However, does the fact that they ignored the mandatory evacuation order, thereby knowingly placing themselves in mortal danger, mean that they have less right to expect rescue than those who did what they were told and got into trouble anyway?

If Wilma had hit Key West (and its parties) hard, then hundreds of rescue personnel would be involved to get them out. The people who choose to risk themselves in these situations need to realise that their actions affect not only themselves, but others as well.

And it's not just in life-or-death situations either. Failure to take responsibility for your own actions appears to be worryingly prevalent these days. Whether its people eating or smoking themselves to the point where they draw valuable medical resources from really needy people, or parents who blame the actions of their kids on schools, or 30-somethings who continue to feed off their parents, or people fraudulently claiming benefits.

I'm going to stick my neck out and call this a First World problem. People can shirk responsbility because many of us live in an over-controlled, over regulated "nanny state", where every aspect of our lives has constraints. The more constraints there are, the less decisions each of us have to make. Consequently, we take less responsibility because more of the things that affect us are outside our control.

In the Developing World, I will bet you dollars to pesos that everyone takes responsibility for their actions, because if they don't, no-one else will. If they didn't take responsibility, they'd be dead inside a week. There is no government agency to throw money at aid schemes, or touchy-feely think-tanks, or regulatory bodies to tell them what they can and cannot do.

Progress is a double-edged sword. While it gives us clean water, Art, air travel and iPods, it taketh away self-determination and control and, to some extent, pride. And that's the biggest loss. Pride in your achievements, pride in what you have built, or made, is an incredible thing. But if 80% of the work required for those achievements was given to you, you feel hollow. Something given has no value.

Those who do not take responsbility for their actions, and who believe that it is their right to be supported by others are, in my opinion, the biggest drain on society. If it was survival of the fittest, like it should be, they'd all be toast. That would mean we'd be eating toast for a very long time.

24 October 2005

Birmingham or Bosnia?

Racial groups fighting it out in the streets? Rape, looting, murder? Sounds like the sort of thing you hear about in the news in places like Africa and the Balkans. You see these reports and nod sadly, thinking how unfortunate that these things are commonplace in those areas.

Except this is Birmingham, the UK's second city. That sort of thing can't happen! This is Britain! Except it is. The white middle class hordes (of which I am one) sit in our semis and never come into contact with the racial tension which bubbles not very far beneath the surface. Race-related violence is something that happens on the news, in other countries. Isn't it? It's hard for the majority to believe this is happening, when it occurs outside the borders of our neat and tidy little lives.

The thing that really brought home the comparison with the Balkans was the use of the word "enclave" in the linked news article. Up to now, I have only heard that word used in conjunction with Srebrenica and Sarajevo, which were war zones at the time.

It maybe that the only thing which is keeping Balkan-style violence from erupting is the legacy stability that exists, and the British ethic of ignoring things and carrying on regardless. However, the British way is probably a big factor in why those for whom this mindset coexists with others feel so marginalised and under threat.

That the Government overlook the fact that not everyone on this little island necessarily shares the same "keep walking, don't engage" mentality means that incidents like those in Birmingham will continue to happen.

While Britain does not have the long history of racial upheaval (being an island has meant that racial diversity is a recent thing), we do have the press. While these people work under the misapprehension that they are presenting The Truth to the readers, the readers take everything as gospel, even when its editorial rubbish.

The riots in Birmingham were apparently sparked by a rape which may not even have taken place!. Having a media who can say what they want is a good thing. However, it does mean that they can say what they want.

A solution to this sort of problem is beyond me. Its beyond most people, possibly even everyone. While History was terribly boring at school, its does explain the reasons behind almost every problem in the world. People do things because of what has happened to them in the past. Understand people's past, and you can predict their future.

Unfortunately, this sounds like we need more psychiatrists.

20 October 2005

Look Forward / Look Back

You're sitting in Starbucks with your Mocca Chocca Grande Latte, staring out the window at the relentless grey tide of humanity streaming past in the pouring rain. Faced with such as scene, is it any wonder your mind ponders the greyer side of humanity and civilisation?

Well, consider that your Mocca Chocca Grande Latte is half full, and not half empty. If you're willing to do that, consider a random businessman outside the window.

Think about what he's wearing. Think about the materials, the weaving, the cut, the tools, the craftsmanship, the manufacturing technology, the design and the millions of people over the millenia who were necessary to bring clothing technology to the point where that random businessman can buy a wool suit off the peg for £300.

Consider the laptop he's carrying. Again, think about the science, the theory, the testing, the chemistry, the technology, the design, the technicians, the engineers and the trillions of pounds invested over only two decades to take the state of the art from the size of a small house to the size of a large book that costs £500.

Consider also that he is walking down the street with little concern for his safety or wellbeing or the fear of attack. Think about the centuries of law and order, history, social stability, war, diplomacy, courage and sacrifice that allow him to do that.

Think about his trip home. Think about the invention of the wheel, steam locomotion, the internal combustion engine, metalled roads, signalling, policing, aerodynamics and applied thermodynamics that lets him get home withn 24 hours from anywhere on the planet.

Think about when he gets home. Think about governments, the councils, mining, processing, building technology, hot and cold running water, santiation, garbage pickup and the home security that ensures he gets a good nights sleep and doesn't wake up dead.

When you've thought about that, look up. Think about going up and up, out of atmosphere, out of the solar system, out of the galaxy, out of the universe. That mind boggling scale is precisely the scale of human endeavour.

You and the things in the world are the result of all human activity in the millenia to this point. That's pretty amazing.

The Bible is Wrong

Not my words. Don't kill the prophet! Back, zealot!. This is from the horse's mouth. The Catholic Church has now stated that elements of The Bible are untrue.

The regular Reader (yes, THE reader) will know my thoughts on Organised Religion, Christianity in particular. I personally have always thought that The Bible is more akin to a compendium of short stories, rather than a blow by blow historical account told from various points of view. I should add that, being an atheist and having only read snippets of The Bible, my dissection of the contents thereof should not detract from the U-turn of centuries of Christian dogma.

Are they saying that, actually, we shouldn't have gone to South America and killed all those Incas and Aztecs, etc for sacrificing all those other people1? It was a typo in our Big Book of Orders. It turns out you aren't allowed to kill people and cut out their hearts, and all that other stuff.

Are they saying that going to far off lands, giving them a Bible and saying "read this and do what it says, or we'll kill you" was wrong? Put simply like that, it is wrong, regardless of whether the Bible is "right" or "wrong".

Genesis is "conflicting"? So He didn't create the universe in six days? That always sounded far-fetched. That's like a government saying "We'll fix everything wrong with this country, for free!". Putting aside my atheism, creating a half-decent universe takes a month at the very least, even allowing for omnipotence.

Quote: "should not expect 'total accuracy' from the Bible". So, the only decent parts of the whole book are rubbish? Water into Wine? Walking on Water? Parting the Red Sea? Plagues of nastiness? All those cunning plot devices that make the Bible quite the page-turner aren't true? Well, what do we do now?

This does rather leave a couple of billion rather out in the cold, theologically2 speaking. That's like saying to a Capitalist "You know all those bits of paper with pictures and numbers on them you crave so much? They're not worth anthing!"3.

So, like removing Saddam from Iraq, those who have suffered "deity decapitation" 4 now have a yawning power vacuum into which all sorts of nasties may get sucked. It's a dangerous universe out there. Keep your undying soul inside the vehicle at all times.

1 Which is hypocritical at best.
2 As supposed to 'meteorologically'.
3 Which of course they aren't. But don't tell anyone. It'll be our little secret.
4 Which I hereby Copyright, by the way.

19 October 2005

Saddam's Trial - Day 1

Thought I'd just jot some comments on this as it progresses.

Showing just how momentous an event this is, BBC News' website has a FULL WIDTH headline! Must be serious...

Several of Saddam's cronies are in there with him. The Judge first asked Saddam to identify himself, at which point he started prevaricating with great aplomb. Maybe he watched the Clinton impeachment trial and was impressed. The judge then asked the other guys their names and, surprise surprise, they all gave waffly answers as well. I would have thought it would have been better to let the others go first, rather than give Saddam the chance to dictate their approach to questioning.

At this point, the judge gives up in the face of such high-powered, Clinton-esque flanneling, to which the interpreters whispered, but very audible, response is "circus, absolute circus".

Almost as much fun as the defendants response to questioning is the interpreters coverage of the trial. The audio and interpretation is patchy, and you can hear every breath, sigh, fart, slurp, keystroke and whispered comment them make. It reminds me of Terry Wogan's coverage of The Eurovision Song Contest; not as funny, but just as irreverent.

Ooh, Someone's phone just rang, playing the Nokia Tune. I half expected Dom Joly from Trigger Happy TV to stand up with his massive 'phone: "HELLO! WHAT! NO, I'm IN SADDAM'S TRIAL! NO, IT'S BORING".

The guy who must be The Prosecutor (dressed in legal garp) is reading out the charges, to which the Defence Lawyers (dressed in shabby suits) are shouting randomly. Apparently, there is some disagreement about the point of the trial and which crimes are the focus of the trial. It doesn't sound particularly like a courtroom; more like a pub after a football match in which one team was playing rugby.

The clothes are interesting. The Judge and Prosecutor are all done up in the usual stuff, trying to add some credence to the proceedings. No wigs though, which is a pity. The Defence Lawyers look like they've slept in their suits, hoping to gain some sympathy by appearing to be court-appointed through LegalAid. Saddam looks very snappy, although he apparently has a personal dresser (not his words - more like "They made me wear this suit").

Someone in the interpreters booth is typing either on or with what sounds like a pestle and mortar, and getting a decent words-per-minute out of it too. This is all happening while someone, probably someone else, is rhythmically putting a mic too close to a speaker, so we get some really nice feedback. If it wouldn't have led to critics decrying American involvement in the trial, it would have been nice to get the producers of Judge Judy in to get some decent coverage. Maybe get Judge Judy herself to run the show. She would've got Saddam to 'fess up his name at the very least.

Today's broadcast has come to a close. There's been a lot of shouting, some confusion as to who people really are and why they are there, and what they are there for, and the children do not know where lieth the thing belonging to their father that has a raffiawork base, and an attachment. It's all very Monty Python, except without the production values or Terry Gilliam's animations. Now that would be something. Instead of boring court artist renderings of the scene, get Terry to animate it. Ahh, the curse of the Ideas Man. No talent to carry them through!!

Oh, yeah, and he pleaded Not Guilty. Evidently, a bigger boy did it and ran away...or one of his doppelgangers.

05 October 2005

Faith vs Proof

Since no-one has told me I'm an idiot yet, I'm going for the big one, you know, keep lining them up and knocking them down. And trying to get crushed only some of the time.

Making a huge generalisation, there are two main types of blogs; those trying to sell things, and those about Jesus. Since this blog is neither, I can poke fun at either. And Jesus1 is up first.

There are two main schools of thought about how the universe came to be; benevolent, omnipotent entity against statistical probability. The benevolent, omnipotent entity school is supported (or followed) by those who belong to an organised religion. The statistical probability school is supported by those of a scientific bent who, by the nature of their work, need to prove that it works. And if Proof denies Faith, you can't have both.

The vast majority (I believe its over 95%) of people on this planet are "affiliated" with one of the major religions. Chances are there is an overlap in the two schools; those of a scientific mindset who practice a religion. This would imply that you can have both, or that these people are either bad engineers / scientist, or lapsed religious types.

Organised Religion has, in my humble opinion, a chequered past in that it goes to great lengths to foist its beliefs on others. Most notably in South America, where thousands of indigenous peoples have been forced to embrace Christianity, or be "purified"; read as "shot" 2.

Scientists too attempt to foist their beliefs / findings / proofs on others, in an attempt to ratify their life's work. I suppose, in a small way, each scientist is the leader of their own little religion, trying to bring others to their cause, except they use evidence and reasoning, instead of relying on blind faith and the sword.
Being objective, science hasn't been around as long as religion, so The Sword as a means to an end isn't really an option for Science. I'm sure some scientists are pretty cut-throat in their dealings as well.

Religion, in the same way as Planning, is Man's attempt to impose order on the chaotic universe, in an attempt to understand it. But so is Science. So Science and Religion appear to be two disciplines with the same goal and differing methods.

But Religion requires that you accept that the universe and its wondrous variety is the work of the omnipotent being, and not worry about the How, which isn't a mechanism for understanding the universe, merely with being comfortable with how it is.

Science, on the other hand, very much wants to know How, as Human beings are generally an inquisitive lot. If we accept the omnipotent creator, why would He/She/They/It create a being, one of whose defning characteristics is curiosity, who would attempt to identify their origins, if such an act is heretical?

1 Was he really Puerto Rican? We'll never know.
2 You may be able to tell that I don't have a great deal of time for organised religion, but I'm trying to be objective here. If not, it gives your religious people a get out clause.

04 October 2005


Does it bother anyone else that during a total Eclipse of the sun by the moon, the Moon is juuuuust the right size to block all but the sun's corona, giving us a spectacular "ring of fire"? Isn't it a little bit too convenient?

If religious types really wanted to convert people, that's the kind of thing you need to be selling as divine creation, rather than saying you'll rot in Hell 1.

From a planetary mechanics point of view, I'm sure the equations probably balance out. If you assume that the supposition that a prehistoric Earth impact ejected the material to make the Moon is correct, then it may be that the relative masses and densities of the two bodies involved are such that the Moon automatically assumes the correct orbit to provide nice eclipses. Maybe that's just how moons work.

It's almost like Archimedes getting into the bath and displacing his volume in water, which is juuust enough to cover the floor to exactly the depth required so that when Archimides got out, he slips and falls back in. OK, so it's nothing like that.

If you do accept the Creationist dogma for a second, it would stand to reason 2 that what is for The Moon is for all moons. But would He go through all that trouble making nicely positioned and sized moons, only to give Life to one planet only? Maybe he couldn't be bothered. Maybe He got to late Saturday afternoon, tired after a full week creating the Universe, the footie is on the telly, last job in the Job Jar is "create eclipsing moons" and He thought "No, Its Chelsea Versus Liverpool. Screw Their Nicely Eclipsing Moons. They Can Be Happy With What They've Got. Or Else." Doesn't sound much like the popular depiction of God thus far does it? Ooh, Deity as Couch Potato Footy Fan, there's a concept. Maye I should write a book and sell the film rights to Tom Hanks.

Errr.......Eclipses! Very pretty, little bit too convenient, but very pretty all the same. I'm sure there is a rational, science-based reason for it. Answers on a Postcard.

1 Wouldn't you have to believe in God, and hence Heaven and Hell, before this threat carries any weight?
2 Sorry, used "reason" in the context of Religion there.