Friday, April 29, 2005

29 April 2005: Justification

Question Time was good last night. Somehow I'm amazed the Attorney General's advice on the Iraq war was published the same day, but it shows Labour are human I suppose.

So Tony finally published the full legal advice, which wasn't either damning of his decision or totally backing of it. Most interesting for me was one of the few statements the Attorney General made that wasn't full of caveats: he said specifically that to be legal, any military action against Iraq "must have as its objective the enforcement of the terms of the cease-fire" which meant expressly that "regime change cannot be the objective of military action".

Let's have a look at that line again.

Regime change cannot be the objective of military action.

Tony Blair said last night that the conclusion of the matter was that Saddam was in prison, and would you rather he was in power or in prison?

According to the Attorney General, that isn't a legitimate question to ask. On that basis, we should have invaded Zimbabwe some time ago, not to mention North Korea, Syria and, oh yes, Sudan, where the genocide in Darfur continues and the world does nothing. Or, if we're talking about invading because of breaching UN Security Council resolutions, we should be invading Morocco, Turkey and the biggest flaunter of them all: Israel.

Andrew Marr said this morning that "had this advice been published in full - not just released to the cabinet but handed out to every MP and newspaper - it would have caused far less damage to Mr Blair than two years of secrecy and rumour have done." Actually, Blair might well have lost the Commons vote to go to war and certainly more ministers may have resigned than just Robin Cook, Clare Short and John Denham. As it is, I feel amazed the current Cabinet feel happy to be members of a government that simply ignores Cabinet rules on the disclosing of the whole legal advice to the whole cabinet if a summary is given.

Above all, I wish Tony would just come out and say what we all really know: he decided to join George Bush in the war in the summer of 2002, regardless of the conditions, because it is in Britain's (and his own) interests to be good friends with the superpower. It was nothing to do with justification, legal arguments or moral imperatives, it was a decision already taken and with that in mind, Blair would do anything necessary to join the war -- hide legal doubts, mislead the country, misrepresent intelligence -- because he had already committed to George Bush that he would be there.

And if he'd just come out and say that, we'd all feel a lot better. Of course, he'd have to resign, but what does that tell us?

For balance, I must point out that Michael Howard also believes that regime change was a good reason for war and he would have invaded even if he knew there were no WMDs. Also, Michael Howard, as part of his war on immigration and asylum, would withdraw Britain from the 1951 United Nations Convention on refugees, which obliges countries to accept people being persecuted on the basis of need, not numbers. The vast majority of countries are part of this convention - among the very few non-signitories are Myanmar, Syria, Uzbekistan, Libya and Saudi Arabia. Mmm, that's a nice club to join, Michael.

More balance? Well, Charles Kennedy said he'd pull troops out of Iraq by Christmas irrespective of the needs or wishes of the Iraqi people. OK, except we did cause this mess to a certain extent and even if it wasn't Kennedy's government who caused it, we do have a national responsibility there now, like it or not. Kennedy would probably be better off saying something like "an exit strategy would have been a good idea."

More balance? Umm, the Greens don't have much of an economic policy, UKIP are too isolationist, the BNP are overtly racist, Kilroy is a shiny fool, the Scottish Nationalists aren't putting up many candidates in Southampton, the Communists are all dead and the anarchists won't stand for election on the principle that any form of government is inherently evil.

Somehow the whole thing makes the Saints football disaster seem uplifting and attractive.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

27 April 2005: Desperate

Howard Launches Desperate Last Attack on Blair

With only a week to go until the UK General Election, Conservative Leader Michael Howard has turned to even more desperate measures in an attempt to bolster his party's disappointing poll ratings.

After two weeks campaigning on the issues of immigration and asylum, Howard last weekend declared that his team were two-nil down at half time, just like his Liverpool side in the Carling Cup Final, except that Liverpool were one-nil up and lost. The last few days had seen the Tories drop their issues-based campaigning in favour of personal attacks on Tony Blair's integrity.
"He said he would drop his trousers in the Commons and give me his sweeties if taxes went up," said Mr Howard at a Press Conference yesterday. "'Liar, liar, pants on fire' is what I would say to Mr Blair. Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

Today, however, the campaign took a new twist as Mr Howard looked to further pressure the Labour leader into submission. At their daily press conference this morning, war was beginning. Shadowy chancellor Oliver Letwin began with the statement "Somebody set up us the bomb." Then main screen turn on. Michael Howard appeared as a ghostly apparition in the shape of some cats.
"How are you gentlemen?" he politely enquired of members of the gathered press. "All your base are belong to us. You are on the way to destruction"
"What you say?" asked Andrew Marr, the BBC's political editor.
"You have no chance to survive make your time," clarified Mr Howard. "Ha ha ha ha."

Responding to this unlikely challenge, Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking at a chocolate fluffy bubbles factory in Harpenden, said Mr Howard's attacks were a threat to national security.
"Take off every 'zig'," he instructed Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who immediately responded by eating breakfast.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, feeling a little left out of proceedings as he cashed his weekly postal order from his mum at a Post Office in Selkirk, said he supported the Labour Party's response.
"Move 'zig'," he confirmed. When gathered journalists and sheep asked why, his response was simple and straightforward, a message that will ring clear with the electorate.
"For great justice."

Stop Press: Party leaders later retracted all the above statements and agreed the election should not be fought on the basis of a four-year-old web cartoon. Michael Howard refused to comment on speculation that Trogdor was backing his anti-immigrant bill with a threat to 'burninate the peasants and their thatch-roof cottages'. Weebl and Bob were expected to announce their backing of UKIP this morning, although speculation was that the monkey could still go anywhere. Numanuma boy was quoted as saying: "Numa numa". The case continues.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

24 April 2005: Down

Historically, Southampton Football Club have been bigger than their local rival, Portsmouth. In the top division every year since the mid-1970's (a statistic matched only by Liverpool, Man U, Arsenal and Everton), Saints have a bigger stadium, better training facilities, a better youth system and, of course, 'arry an' Jim.

But Pompey won this afternoon's match 4-1, utterly humiliating a very poor Saints team whose first half display (when all the goals were conceded) was at least as bad as last week's capitulation against Villa. Saints have played like a team of zombies, as they have for much of the season, and since 'arry got Manager of the Month for March Saints have lost four out of five and in those five have conceded fourteen goals.

It's embarrassing as much as anything. Player for player, Saints should be at least the match of Pompey, even given the lack of Michael Svennson, Marian Pahars and Peter Crouch today. But it wasn't even a contest. As I sat here watching the game with both Rob and the duck, we decided it was simply shameful, a passionless display from a team with no soul. I commented back in August how Saints seemed to have changed so much since the heady days of Bridgey, Marsden, Strachan and the Cup Final. Just last season Saints were fourth at Christmas and had competed, albeit briefly, in the UEFA Cup. Now Delap, Bernard, Telfer and captain Claus are taking us down to play in the brown and fizzy league, and none of them seem to care.

Maybe that's the problem.

Friday, April 22, 2005

22 April 2005: Email

I'm sure many of you know by now, but if you want, you can email the Pope.

Beyond the expected spam jokes (yes, we know he's going to get cheap Viagra offers) it seems a decent idea. After all, if we can email Tony Blair, George W. Bush and Rupert Oh-So-Lowe, whyever not? I suppose the only question is, what would you say in your PapalMail?

"What do you think of Gwen Stefani's recent album?"
"If you like Saints so much, why are we getting relegated? Pray, man, pray!"
"Any tips for who I should bet on to be the next Pope?"

But best of all is the entirely genuine email sent by breakfast show host Theresa Ross from Z88.3, who just revealed she's sent the Pope a mail containing the subject line:
"Is that you, Grandpa?"

Apparently, she just meant to say he looks a sweet old man. It never occurred to her that it might precipitate a huge investigation and scandal about a secret family the definitively-unmarried Pope may have begun at some point.

Be a laugh if it did, though.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

21 April 2005: Wonder

It struck me there's no shortage material to talk about at the moment. The smoke rising from the chimney, coloured by chemicals to show that the conclave of editorial staff at The Sun will be going with Labour? The pledge by the new Pope to unite Christians all over the world? (He should try just doing it in Hoxton.) The blood-stained hand-written letter we received yesterday from our local Liberal Democrat candidate, which it is hard not to see as a physical threat?

Actually, any of these would be good. But yesterday afternoon I was introduced to the wonder that is Google Maps, and more importantly their recently-introduced feature of being able to see a satellite photograph of the area you're looking at. No, not like a weather map from a long way out: this is a close-up view where in many cases you can even make out individual cars on the roads. And just drag it to move it around, zoom in and out as much as you like, flick between map and photograph views to make sure you're in the right place: amazing. It's restricted to the US, Canada and the UK right now (and the UK satellite images aren't close-up), but for someone like me who still expresses wonder at contact lenses and home-made loaves of bread that actually look like loaves of bread, it's astounding. You'll need a decent broadband connection to get the full effect, but if you can, then consider these, especially picked for those of you familiar with The Trip or who have read the book:

OK, I know it's boring and you'd rather see the smoke emanating from the chimney signaling the Sun's decision.

*sigh* There you are. You know, this world could handle a lot more wonder, couldn't it?
Postscript: talking of wonder, Blogger's spell-checker just suggested I change the word 'frisbees' to 'periscopes'. I blink in astonishment.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

19 April 2005: Election

No, not that one.

I'm actually watching the Pope election thing as I write this. The smoke's gone up, the bells have tolled, but we've yet to have the announcement of who it is.

The interesting thing is this: Martyn just asked me "doesn't it strike you as a very odd thing?"
"No," I replied, "I find it fascinating in the way I found the US elections fascinating, it's interesting to see who they pick as a major leader over so many people in the world."
"But from a religious point of view, isn't it odd?"
I thought for a moment.
"Actually, it doesn't strike me as particularly religious at all."

Maybe it's my protestant background, but I really do see far more politics in this than actual Christianity. *sigh*

Anyway, they just announced it's Ratzinger. At least it's not Tony Blair.

Monday, April 18, 2005

18 April 2005: Typical

Saints were two-nil up at half time and cruising. Flowing attacks, defense-splitting midfield play, enthusiasm unseen since Strachan's days, Kevin Phillips back in the line-up and back to his best.

Saints lost the match three-two, capsizing Titanic-like in the second half. Midfield gave the ball away, defence backed off and off and off, three goals conceded. It could have been six. More worryingly, it could have been any Saints game this season, whether under Sturrock, Wigley or 'Arry.

Can you blame the managers? Or Woopert the Chairman? Actually, in this case, no: the game was perfectly set up for a win. Indeed in the first half, the Saints fans taunted Villa's travelling support with shouts of "easy, easy" because that is what it was. The reversal was astounding, but it revealed three key facts about the current Saints team:
  1. Claus Lundekvam can't defend,
  2. Rory Delap can't defend, and
  3. Olivier Bernard can't defend.

Davenport came on for Jakobsson at half time, but actually he didn't play badly, and he wasn't the problem. When your captain (Claus) tells the defence to back off and back off and back off, such that the opposition player gets a free run from the halfway line to the edge of the box unchallenged, there is clearly a problem. Saints have had this tendency for years - only in the halcyon days of Michael 'Killer' Svennson (bets on when he'll be back? Smart money says his career is over.) have Saints (and even Claus) looked a decent defensive unit.

Calls today on SaintsForever are for Dodd to be recalled from Argyle because (1) he is a good defender and (2) he is a good captain. Makes you wonder why he actually left. Is Delap really a better right back? Is Claus really a better captain? Given the inevitable though, which is to say Plymouth Argyle and Southampton both in the Championship next year, I wonder if Dodd might not be tempted to leave the mess that is St Mary's for the smaller club at Home Park where at least he gets the respect he deserves.

Well, maybe. Saints were down weeks ago (I continue to cite the Everton match as the day we were relegated), but they're going to be big fish in the tighter confines of the pond that is the Championship, fighting for promotion in a way Argyle probably won't. Maybe Dodd and Dexter will head back to St Mary's after all. And you know what? I somehow can't see any Premiership clubs coming in to offer Claus a contract. Phillips, Crouch, Niemi all on their way... Claus to stay.

So, more of the same next season? Don't doubt it for a second.

Postscript: Dodd to be recalled by Saints. Goodness me, this blog had a quick effect.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

14 April 2005: Fake

Slashdot reports that some MIT students have invented a random Computer Science Paper generator, made a couple of random papers using it, and had one of them accepted at a conference. They're now planning to present their paper using a randomly-created talk at the prestigious WMSCI 2005 Conference. Interestingly, reading the acceptance letter and the rejection letter and subsequent correspondence around the second paper, it almost appears that the conference email-writers themselves are fully automated. (You get the same impression looking at the WMSCI home page -- in fact, it is just a purely-for-profit conference that has no relevance to actual scientific work at all.)

Which leads to the question: is this what artificial intelligence is all about? Not making smart systems, but systems that are smart-sounding enough to baffle humans into allowing them to effectively pass the Turing Test without actually having any meaning at all.

Reminds me of the old days at QAS, reading the log files of Stellent Content Server talking to Publisher, which were more like a conversation in an old people's home:

Server: "Are ya there?"
Publisher: "What?"
Server: "I said, are ya there?"
Publisher: "Ten o'clock."
Server: "Oh."
Publisher: "I wet meself."

At least that's what we assumed the memory leak was all about.

But still, congratulations to Jeremy and the MIT team. Make a nice change from Citeseer for them.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

13 April 2005: Probably

Probably the worst campaign in the world...

There's a link to the related tune on this SaintsForever thread. It's Tom Hark, in case you hadn't guessed.

13 April 2005: Cynicism

Rio Ferdinand just happened to bump into Chelsea Chief Executive Peter Kenyon at a London restaurant last weekend. Purely by chance, no secretly-planned meetings and definitely no talk of Rio maybe signing for Chelski.

As if we're going to believe anything Chelsea tell us about such matters, they've never been known to tap up any players before, have they? Or managers, come to that? And what about Rio himself, for that matter - hardly the cleanest record in the game. Football is so corrupt, there's no reason at all to believe this was a chance meeting, even if it was a chance meeting. It's like Tony trying to convince us we need to go to war with, say, Iran or Syria: no matter what he says about imminent threats and weapons of mass destruction, who's going to believe him?

I thought I was slowly learning to throw off my cynical shell, but it seems that in some areas there's little difference between cynicism and reality. Did Charles Kennedy decide with his wife that a baby might be useful given a probable election in May 2005? Did Michael Howard just discover his distaste for abortion by chance during the election campaign? (Although the Catholic Church now, of course, have another election on their mind.) And suddenly Tony loves Gordon? When did that happen? And let's not forget the forged-photo fiasco of Ed Matts and Ann Widdecombe, and Michael Howard's decision not to sack him, thus proving it's ok to lie, but it's sackable to tell the truth.

And all that without mentioning how Tony Blair, knowingly or otherwise (ha ha!), misled parliament and the country on the reasons and legality of invading Iraq. At least Cheney, Rumsfeld, Kristol and Wolfowitz (the PNAC people who also happen to be VP, Defence Sec, speech writer and former VP Chief of Staff, and new World Bank President respectively) are honest about their stance on global domination: PNAC states as part of its aims: "that American leadership is good both for America and for the world; that such leadership requires military strength". Let's not forget, they were calling for a second invasion of Iraq as far back as 1998, well before the 'war on terror' began, and they're right at the heart of the Bush administration.

At least they're out front about it. So come on Tony, Michael and Charles - tell us what you'd really do if you got elected. And as for Rio, I think most of us are beyond caring.

Friday, April 08, 2005

8 April 2005: Voyager

Budget cuts are a part of life. But cutting off the Voyager probes is somehow morally wrong.

For 28 years, Voyagers 1 and 2 have been sliding out across the solar system, photographing planets and moons and, most recently, sending back data from the edge of the solar system that tells us it's a different place than we thought it might be.

Since Voyager 2 swung around Neptune and skimmed past Triton in 1989, the two probes have been on 'extra time' missions - measuring radiation, solar wind, interstellar effects using the tiniest amount of electricity (both probes have enough power to last until around 2020) and sending back data and photographs to NASA's small remaining team. There are no other probes anything like as far out as the Voyagers (Pioneer 10 died a couple of years ago), nor are there any plans to send any others. So why is the Bush administration wanting to scrap the project just as the probes are reaching one of the most fascinating places in the solar system: the Termination Shock, the place where the solar wind slows to subsonic speeds, heating up as its particles interact with the interstellar wind from outside the sun's influence? Voyager 1 is due to reach this spot sometime in 2006/07 where it will begin to be bombarded with particles from other stars - nothing like that has ever been measured or observed in human history.

Why? Because it costs $4.2 million per year to keep the project going.

Now, for something like my bank account, or even for something like AKT, that's a hefty sum. For the US Government it's nada. Or almost nada. Unfortunately, the 'Voyager Interstellar Mission' is regarded as one of the least important missions within NASA these days, and if President Bush cuts NASA's budget by a third and says "your priority is sending men to Mars, so spend the money on that", then what are they supposed to do?

Still, there's something in me that seems amazingly frustrated at the short-sightedness of this approach. We didn't expect this kind of opportunity from the Voyagers, so in that sense it's all a bonus -- but we're not going to get another chance to gather this data for perhaps decades to come, and somehow this proposed cut seems a colossal waste of opportunity. I, and many others, routinely check JPL's Voyager pages every month or to see if there's anything happening, and quite often it seems there is. Cut it off for the sake of $4.2 million?

One correspondent on the relevant Slashdot conversation puts it in perspective:
"By my calculations at $166 million a day to be in Iraq, the US government could save the Voyager's first year's $4.2 million by leaving Iraq 39 minutes early. That seems reasonable." And in many ways, all Voyager 1 needs is another couple of years (at most) to reach the termination shock.

Perhaps Harry should buy Voyager for Saints? $4.2m is about half of what we paid for Rory Delap, and when was the last time he told us anything about the interstellar wind?

Thursday, April 07, 2005

7 April 2005: Milk

According to his will, published today, the Pope considered stepping down in 2000, seemingly due to his age and ongoing struggle with Parkinson's disease. Which should lead the electing cardinals to one very important conclusion: they mustn't elect a Pope who drinks milk.

And apologies for harping on about it, but I still can't get past that Prozac story from last summer. I mean, no water, no milk, what are we supposed to drink? Maybe some liquidized frog? (Hands up all those who remember that one first time around!)

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

5 April 2005: Spoil

My sister Ali phoned to see if I'd be voting in the usual manner at the election Tony just announced. I said I wasn't sure yet, I'd see if there were any Greens or Loonies with a reasonable chance of victory. Last year at the Euro elections, we actually returned a Green from my constituency, so it wasn't a wasted vote. That, however, used a proportional representation system; this is the UK General Election, which means we're back to the good ol' days of first-past-the-post, where your vote probably won't count, and even if it does, there's only about a 50% chance your elected candidate will be on the winning party.

So I told Ali that the chances are I'd be back to the normal approach come May 5. Since none of the candidates on offer are even remotely close to sharing my political beliefs (you don't want to know, believe me, but I'm after some funding into the elephant conspiracy investigations for a start), I'd really quite like to vote for 'none of the above'. Not abusing my constitutional (ha!) rights by not voting at all, I'd actually like to make the effort to go to the polls, fill out my voting slip with my preference for "not any of this lot" and thus have my voice heard. None of these candidates even pretend to be close to representing my views, so what choice do I have? Absolutely none.

A wasted vote, say many. Especially since we in the UK don't have an option called 'none of the above' -our equivalent is deliberate spoiling of the ballot paper. But hang on just a second -- these votes are not thrown away, and many people forget that. When results are declared for an given constituency, the returning officer says something rather like the following:

"Eh-hem. Here are the results for Winglebith West.
Alan Kenneth Babbage [off-screen voice of David Dimbleby: 'Conservative'], thirteen thousand four hundred and sixty.
*pause while a small number of people clap*
Anthony Trust-Me-Would-I-Sell-A-Used-Car-To-You Blair [DD: 'Labour, he says'], seventy-six thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine.
*big cheer from orchestrated masses paid to cheer loudly while Tony grins cheesily*
Tartan Dougal Regional-Accent McSporran [DD: 'Liberal Democrat'], twenty-four.
*ceremonial one-clap*
Robert Angry Shaft-Em Kilroy Silk [DD: 'Not sure which party, but it's certainly not UKIP], twenty-five.
[*yeeeah* shouts Kilroy pointlessly].
The number of spoiled ballot papers was one hundred and twenty-eight.
I hereby declare Anthony Blair is returned as Member of Parliament for this constituency..."

Yes, they count them. And normally it doesn't matter how many there are because the number is too small. That's democracy, of course: I'm in a minority, I guess everyone else thinks they can and do identify with at least one political party, or they sufficiently hate one particular party that they protest-vote for the main rivals. But what if the number of spoiled ballot papers was larger than one hundred and twenty-eight? What if it was one hundred and twenty-eight thousand?

I don't see it happening somehow, but apparently some people do. Those nice people at think they'll garner sufficient numbers of spoilers to make the establishment take some notice. Their FAQ section says they have no idea what will happen should their dream come true, and hilariously their answer to the question "what is your alternative? You must have some manifesto?" is completely blank.

Still, you have to give them credit for trying, and it's good to see something a little different as the election approaches with the same numbing inevitability we had in 2001. Let's be clear: for the Conservatives to win this election, they need a bigger swing than Labour had in 1997, and remember that was a record swing. So what we need to do is to revel in the possibilities, dream different and enjoy the next four weeks before Tony and co get back in again with probably a reasonably reduced majority. Let's enjoy the Lib Dems as they continue to try to increase their number of questions at PMQs, let's laugh at Kilroy, and even though UKIP may be a one-issue party whose currency is fear and whole politics is only slightly removed from the BNP, at least they're different and give the Tories something to worry about. And let's enjoy, promoting the novel idea of a democracy where you actually vote for the candidate you like, and if there isn't one you like, you can say so.

What's that? "Why don't you stand yourself"? Pah. Politics is a young man's game.

Friday, April 01, 2005

1 April 2005: Conspiracy

What conspiracy am I talking about? The fact that the Iraq WMD intelligence, which led to a huge (ongoing) war and tens of thousands of civilian deaths, was 'dead wrong'? The whole Papal conspiracy thing, given the current incumbent of the Vatican may not last even until you read this? (If you want a good chuckle, have a look at 'The Vatican's Plans To Destroy America'). The Tory plans to secretly cut a whole lot more than just the £35bn they talk about if they win the election?

No, worse than all that. It's the elephants.

For the uninitiated, let me explain the central thesis to this debate: elephants and giraffes do not exist, nor have they ever existed. They are part of a plan invented shortly after World War II by the Allies as a way of making people feel good about the world, and they were adopted by the secretly-government-backed 'Flower People' movement of the 1950s and 60s. These fake animals spread their way into the mainstream consciousness through appearances in childrens' books and as technology has developed, sophisticated animation techniques are used to make false film images for our television screens.

Think about it for a moment. A huge, grey animal built like a tank with huge ears and a nose the length of a football goal? An enormous horse with outsize legs and neck that's the colour of a slightly-too-long-in-Duncan's-cupboard banana? Who are they trying to fool? It's fanciful stuff, children's myths, the stuff of legend that we as a society should now be too sophisticated to pay serious attention to.

Except, over the easter break, this happened:

I saw it myself. There were five or six of them. They moved. There were two giraffes too. I kept looking for wires or evidence of electronically-motorised movement, but they seemed quite genuine. One of them betrayed cat-like behaving by turning it's bottom towards us visitors at Fort Worth's excellent zoo, and proceeding to do it's number twos in our direction.

I don't know how they did it, and I don't know what to make of it, except to say this: the elephant conspiracy is stronger than ever.

Watch out. They may try and fool you next.

Edited to add: This is not an April Fool thing any more than any other blog entry. As friends will know, I've held the elephant conspiracy belief for many years, and find it an especially useful help/distraction/annoyance in religious debates.