Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Latest Political Hoohah

When I reviewed David Cameron's options in an earlier blog item, I wrote:
"Tax cuts? Brown will get a tax cut in before the next election and then ask what the Tories are going to cut back on to pay for more tax cuts."

I never imagined that it would be done with such bare-faced cheek as Brown and Darling did this week!

Despite hopelessly misplaying his hand and boosting Cameron when he was on the ropes, Brown's position is still fairly strong as - regardless of some of the more febrile commentary - the UK economy is still ticking over nicely. Even if, as seems likely, the economic waters become choppier, it will be against a background of low inflation and low interest rates - very different from the nightmare scenario that Major faced in 1990 or Callaghan in 1979.

Cameron's next big stick to attack Brown with is the upcoming European Treaty. The press and the Tories have made a lot of fuss about how the Treaty is 90% the same as the previously proposed Constitution - and are demanding a referendum - as was promised by Labour for the Constitution. Brown's argument is that the UK will have specific opt-outs from the parts of the Treaty that he doesn't want.

At the moment, it's all up in the air; Cameron won't say what he specifically doesn't like in the Treaty because of the danger that Brown will come back with opt-outs for all those things. Equally, Brown's red-lines are a bit vague at the moment because the Treaty hasn't been finalised.

The opt-outs are, of course, the crucial point. If Brown can fillet the Treaty, as it applies to the UK, of anything controversial then Cameron's demand for a referendum will start to look silly. I don't believe that Brown will sign up for anything that plays into Cameron's hands because he has too much to lose now, and I can't see the other European governments trying to force his hand. The danger might be that something in the Treaty will be open to multiple interpretations...

Thursday, October 11, 2007


As I drove home, I discovered that the road all the way from the roundabout by the older Mersey tunnel up to the entrance to the newer Mersey tunnel was completely jammed - so there was little prospect of using the new tunnel.

In addition, a bus driver, who I assume had forgotten he was driving a 30-foot bus rather than a mini, had blocked the junction giving access to the old tunnel - causing the gridlock to spread back up Tithebarn Street - and preventing me getting to the old tunnel.

What was the cause of all this mayhem? A lorry had spilt caramel powder the entire length of the new tunnel and the police were worried that it would solidify if it got into the drains.
(Liverpool Echo)

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

About the size of it

I've just read "About the size of it" by Warwick Cairns.

I found it in the science section of a bookshop, so I imagined it was going to be a bit cleverer than it was.

It was interesting to hear about all the units in different countries that are more or less a foot long or a pound in weight and how such measurements as shoe sizes, pints and train gauges evolved. I was previously unaware of the fact that the traditional US and UK measures were the same until 1824 when the UK gallon was resized to correspond to 10 pounds of pure water (supposedly to make shipping cargoes easier to calculate) as opposed to 8 pounds of wine. This is why the (so-called) traditional British pint is bigger than its American counterpart.

His arguments for why such sizes make sense in everyday life are very compelling. However, the underlying anti-metric tone gets a bit silly.

Yes, the fundamental unit of time in SI units is the second - but that doesn't mean that you can't use minutes and hours, they are defined in terms of the second. Yes, the base unit for length is the metre and there is no separate base unit for volume (because you can express volume as cubic metres) but no, that doesn't mean that you have to buys drinks at the bar in cubic metres any more than someone ordering a regular cola in McDonald's has to specify the volume.

He completely ignores one of the key features of the metric system (especially in its modern SI units form), which is the simplicity with which measurements can be manipulated and expressed.

1) A lorry has a cargo of 5120 boxes each weighing 198.5g - how much does the cargo weigh? 5120 x 198.5 = 1,016,320g; now, simply by shifting the decimal point, I can easily convert it to kg or tonnes.

2) A lorry has a cargo of 5120 boxes each weighing 7 ounces - how much does the cargo weigh? 5120 x 7 = 35,840 ounces; erm, best divide that by 16 to get pounds: 2240 pounds; what's that in more convenient units? well, it's a British (long) ton or 1.12 American (short) tons. So even when the numbers are nice round figures and add up to a standard unit: it's still a big faff!

The argument that different sorts of human things lend themselves to different sizes is well made and valid: the weights or volumes of food we want to buy pretty much conform to traditional measures such as a pound or a pint - and are meaningful in a handy, human, everyday sense; but saying that this undermines the metric system doesn't make sense to me.

If you reject his assertion that using metric means that everything has to be in multiples of ten, then there isn't a problem e.g. wine in the EU is sold in 750 ml bottles, a perfectly appropriate size for a wine bottle and completely metric.

In an industrialised world, things are transported, manufactured or processed in bulk and, in a digital age, they are tracked, measured and accounted for using computers; these things are best handled using the metric system. This should not, in my opinion, preclude people from asking for a pound of bananas and being sold a pound of bananas, but the idea that people should continue to insist that they will only measure the things they sell in pounds is just silly. If a chemist insisted on measuring out medicines in grains, you'd go elsewhere.

...and while we're at it Metric Myths.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


"Nearly a fifth of goods made and sold in China have been found to be sub-standard, Beijing has revealed... The inspections did not cover exported products that have caused a number of scandals this year, particularly in the US." (BBC News).

Of course, 20 years ago, the future of manufacturing was all about Quality - with Japanese working practices held up as the model: well-skilled, highly motivated, flexible workers; automation; quality control and quality assurance. The idea being that you reduce costs by reducing your manpower requirement and making your processes more efficient and less wasteful.

Then they discovered China (and to a lesser extent India) with unlimited supplies of low-cost workers. This rather changes the balance of the cost equation.

One of the factors driving the technological innovations of the past 250 years has been the relative shortage and high cost of manpower in the West - particularly in America.

Will automation and robotics stop developing if it's cheaper to get a large number of low-cost, unskilled workers to do the job by hand?

Why dig a hole with expensive earth-moving equipment if it's cheaper to get 10,000 men to the job with spoons?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

New New Labour

Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell are long gone, Tony Blair goes today, and yet the New Labour machine is still working.

Gordon Brown is made to look more human and more 'new' by the day. An obscure Tory MP has defected to Labour and the Tories are made to look divided and lacklustre.

It's just like the old days, very New Labour - or should that be New New Labour

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Origins of the British - Stephen Oppenheimer

In his book, The Origins of the British, Stephen Oppenheimer examines British and Irish history from a genetic perspective (mtDNA and Y-chromosome analysis).

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is inherited unchanged (except for chance mutations) from your mother, whilst the Y-chromosome is inherited unchanged from your father (except for chance mutations which are more likely as this chunk of DNA is bigger than mtDNA). Most of the chance mutations in these DNA chunks have no effect and so just build up over generations, allowing geneticists to construct family trees based on the differences. The rate of mutation is fairly low, for mtDNA there's just one mutation in 1000 generations on average.

Britain and Ireland in the last Ice Age (15,000 years ago) were covered in ice caps and uninhabited polar desert; European populations survived in the evocatively named Ice Age Refuges: in Ukraine and Eastern Europe; in Italy; and in south-west Europe either side of the Pyrenees. The climate and lifestyles would presumably have been similar to that of Siberian tribes or North American Inuit.

Once the ice receded, people from the Ice Age refuges started spreading out and eventually colonised what would become Britain and Ireland. Oppenheimer's key point is that the vast majority of British and Irish (68-88% of people, depending where you live) are descended from these first inhabitants: hunter-gatherers who arrived during the stone age before farming.

The vast majority of these came originally from the south-west European Ice Age refuge around what is now the Basque country. The other, albeit smaller, source of inhabitants is people who originated in the south-east European Ice Age refuge, who would have come into the Eastern side of Britain from the opposite sides of the North Sea. Oppenheimer says that some of these people arrived before the advent of farming, some after.

What this effectively does is demolish all the old theories that had successive waves of invasion and migration spreading over these islands and replacing previous populations. So Neolithic farmers didn't arrive and out-breed the locals, instead the locals must have taken up farming; Iron Age Celts didn't arrive and wipe out their Bronze Age predecessors; and Anglo-Saxons did not perpetrate genocide against indigenous Celts in Dark Age England.

Another theory he demolishes is that when Britain was conquered by the Romans the population was entirely Celtic-speaking. This has been assumed mainly because the post-Roman Angles and Saxons have been described as invaders in the few texts that survive from the end of the Roman Empire.

After reviewing the genetic, historical, archaeological and linguistic issues, Oppenheimer concludes that Celtic populations were living in the same areas that they occupied in later historical times: Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Western Scotland; and that the main Eastern populations (in England and Scotland) were culturally Germanic/Scandinavian (reflecting the cultural links across the North Sea) - this would help to explain why English has hardly any Celtic words in it and, whilst obviously related to Dutch and German, seems to have split off from them much earlier than Anglo-Saxon times.

It had always struck me as odd, the idea that the Angles supposedly came from a little bit of Denmark called Angeln but had sufficient numbers to conquer the whole of what became the kingdoms of East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria - half of Engand. If Angeln had been a powerful city-state commanding huge tracts of Northern Europe then perhaps it would make sense.

Friday, May 11, 2007

colour changing card trick

This card trick by Dr Richard Wiseman on YouTube is excellent - you will be fooled.

(Also see and James Randi)