Archive for the ‘Soapbox’ Category

Where now for a liberal-leftie?

May 11th, 2010

So, the bird has gone to roost in the tree; it remains to be seen whether it will prune back the branches to make a nest, while proudly displaying its plumage, or if it will soon give leaf itself, and become indistinguishable from its new home. While the former situation may make me feel happier in the vote, it also increases the chance that tree and bird will fall out, possibly bringing the whole metaphor down with them.

When the prospects of a Liberal Democrat – Conservative coalition first began to become a practical possibility, rather than a theoretical one, I was initially horrified that the paint may have been flaking of my yellow vote to reveal the blue underneath. It was a popular sentiment. When I tweeted “If the Lib-Dems do team up with the Tories, it will be like a twist in a film when you realise one of the heroes is the bad-guy.” It was rapidly picked up and re-tweeted (forwarded) around the Twittersphere by over 160 people. Clearly many like me felt betrayed, and worried that all the talk of “A vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for the Tories” would turn out far more literally than they may have expected.

However, as time passed it became clear that options were few. While many of the left looked on at a prospect of a grand liberal coalition, the numbers would have been tight, and an already aggressive right wing press would have been attempting to destroy the coalition before parliament was even seated. It was also clear that several senior members of the Labour party were opposed to the proposition, raising the prospect that internal rebellion would seriously threaten the stability of an already precarious position.

The battle was enough to secure a key concession from the Conservatives though, matching Labours offer of AV. With that my most major opposition to the Lib-Con pact was abolished, although I hope the Liberals keep the pressure on to ensure that the changes go through. The situation wasn’t ideal, and I wasn’t about to pretend I was happy with it, but when the cards are dealt you have little choice but to play.

I still worry though. The Conservative party holds vastly more seats than its little pet bird, and I fear that they may get dragged into the fold. Sacrificing ideals for stability, for want of being heard, or for want of power. Furthermore, it is hard to deny the rightward drift of economic policy in the party over the past few years, and it seems possible that the shelter of the leafy boughs of the Conservatives will catalyse this further. Which leaves a problem, if yellow and blue become indistinguishable, either through incompetence or power-grabbing, where next?

Labour may seem an obvious choice, however their dubious record on civil liberties leaves me concerned. While a few back bench rebels still buck the authoritarian trend, the ability to vote for one of them will largely depend on which consistency I end up voting in.

The Greens are considerably to the left of most the mainstream parties, both socially and economically. However, the party occasionally allows its policies to be driven more by ideology than evidence, leaving a few dubious decisions in their science policy. Fortunately they do appear to be attempting to address these in response to criticism in response to their European Election manifesto. Additionally I can’t help but feel that some of their policies seem impractically naive, however this may just be a side effect of their considerable contrast from the mainstream parties. That said, after the election I discovered that my local Green candidate was following Ben Goldacre on twitter, something that had I realised before-hand would have likely persuaded to switch my vote to her.

So where does that leave me? If the AV vote system does get introduced, at least I will be able to vote for who I want, even if they are a minority party. I must admit I am unfamiliar with many of the other minority parties, although know I rejected the Scottish Socialist Party on the basis of their belief in an independent Scotland. (I rejected the SNP on similar principals) It also doesn’t help that most discussion of neo-liberal economics, Keynsian economics etc. just causes my brain to melt. To actually try and work out if it a) is ‘morally’ acceptable and b) will work, is sadly a bit beyond me.

And that’s that, an entry that tails of into navel gazing hand-wringing. How fucking Lib Dem of me. If you want to preach your party, you are welcome to do so in the comments. I’m genuinely interested.

(Note: First time comments will need to be approved manually. I’m not blocking, I’m just being slow.)

Bean had?

Jun 9th, 2009

You may have noticed reports in several newspapers and tech sites today of the Heinz Beanzawave, a USB powered microwave. In total, according to Google News, the story appears to have been covered by over fifty different outlets including the UPI, CrunchGear, Cnet and the Daily Mail. Not to mention a number of popular blogs, such as BoingBoing. While some of these articles have users raising criticisms in the comments, none of the news sources I checked bothered to run a critical eye over the story. (If you find one, please post it in the comments so the good guys can get some acknowledgements.)

The news seemingly originated from a press-release form the ‘Microwave Association,’ working in association with Heinz. Unfortunately for fans of beans and fancy USB gadgets the story appears to be, well, a load of old beans1.

Even a quick critical eye will spot some key flaws. The average modern microwave has an output of 850W, with even weaker models outputting at least 650W. By comparison, the USB 2.0 standard provides a maximum current of 500mA, at 5V; which works out as a maximum power output of just 2.5W2. The former figures should be familiar to anyone who has cooked something in the microwave, as the output is printed on the front, and you are expected to adjust cooking times accordingly. The latter meanwhile should be obvious in part to anyone who has hooked up a printer. While simple devices like mice can obtain sufficient power from a USB socket, the same can’t be said for more power-hungry devices such as printers, which need their own power supplies. Indeed, the power supply units of most computers aren’t certified to deliver 850W of power, with possibly only high quality gaming rigs fitted with a hefty enough PSU; even then, powering a microwave would leave scant remainder for the processor and graphics card.

So we’ve already seen that such a device would have to operate at a significantly lower power output than most modern microwaves. Such a device would be unlikely to be marketed as a novelty, and instead would be positioned to replace most standard microwaves. However is it possible that such improvements have been made, and we are in fact looking at vastly superior technology. In short, not likely, unless they have also managed to break the laws of thermodynamics in creating this miracle microwave.

In demonstrating how truly impossible their claims are we need to consider some physics.

The specific heat capacity of a substance is used to describe how much energy is required to raise its temperature; for water, this is given as approximately 4.2 joules per gram per kelvin. This means that for every gram of water, you must supply 4.2 joules of energy, to raise the temperature by 1 kelvin, or 1 degree Celcius3. Therefore, for a 200g tub of beans (which we shall approximate by assuming it is all water.) it takes 4.2 x 200 = 840 joules to raise the temperature by a single degree.

So how does this translate to our microwave? Well fortunately, the measurement watts tells us how many joules of energy are transferred each second. In other words 1 watt = 1 joule per second. So if we are to assume that our microwave is 100% efficient, that all energy it uses goes directly into heating the beans, we can discover how long it will take to deliver the required 840((And here is a good illustration of the inefficiency of standard microwaves. As by this calculation the beans should be ready in just under a second.)) joules to raise the temperature of the beans by a single degree. Simply divide 840 by 2.5 and… oh dear… 336 seconds. Five minutes, 36 seconds to warm the beans by a single degree. If you want them boiling hot4, then you are going to be waiting over 7 hours.

What bothers me most about this story isn’t the dubious nature of the original press-release. It was clearly constructed by marketing bods in an attempt to gain free column inches. In that respect it worked, and I’m only adding to the effect by writing this. What bothers me is the way the press regurgitated it, unthinkingly, unquestioningly, delivering advertisements as news. Not only this, but it is clear that in most cases, they didn’t even stop to pass a critical eye over it. This isn’t just churnalism, this is factually incorrect churnalism. When the media sacrifices its credibility in terms of fact checking, and ends up falling slave to marketing, what does it have left? And when we lose one of the key methods of fact distribution, of investigation and exposure, what do we have left? Blogs and citizen journalism go so far, but an effective and trustworthy media is is important for everyone; this story is only one of many that makes me wonder how much of one we have left.

I have already contacted the Microwave Association in the E-mail provided in the press-release, and have invited them to respond. I’ll update this entry as soon if I hear anything from them, and leave the comments open if they wish to contribute there. (Although I encourage you do do so via my E-mail, as that way I can be sure the response is genuine. Also, please bear in mind that comments from new users will be held for moderation, and may not get published immediately.)

  1. See, you don’t have to be part of the tabloid press to make terrible puns []
  2. Power is the product of current and voltage []
  3. The scale of Celcius and kelvin is identical. Only the position of the zero position changes, with 0 kelvin being equal to -273.15 °C []
  4. Assuming room temperature 20 °C and a boiling temperature 100 °C []

Weddings

May 26th, 2009

On Saturday I attended my first wedding of the year. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, and the whole thing went off seemingly without a hitch to the various guests assembled. Well, apart from the bride’s car breaking down, but what would life be if it couldn’t mimic a sitcom every once in a while. But in short, everyone was in a great mood, and the whole thing proceeded with a genuine sense of warmth, which was down to more than just the weather.
The fact that the happy couple were tying the knot wouldn’t come across as a surprised to anyone there. They had been together for many years already, and to anyone who knew them their marriage had become a matter of when, not if. Two people recognising and celebrating the fact that they love each other, what else could be more deserving of celebration?

You’d think so anyway wouldn’t you? Except for some people, a change of one small detail, one which I have in fact neglected to even mention in full, would change the above situation from something which should be celebrated, to something which should be prevented.

Today the Californian Supreme court voted to uphold Proposition 8, a dark stain which had made Obama’s victory in November, somewhat bitter-sweet. For the 52% of Californian voters who gave their support to the legislation, gender is far more important than love when it comes to marriage. Seemingly “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” bears a footnote ensuring that it is somewhat tempered if you happen to love someone with the same genitals as you.

“The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.”
Earl Warren 1891-1974
Governor of California 1943-1953,
Chief Justice of the United States 1953-1969

Of course, America has been through this all before, albeit in a slightly different guise. It has been 42 years since Earl Warren, a Californian, overturned Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, and ended race based restrictions on marriage throughout the US. I’ve borrowed a quote from him, which is as valid now as it was then, and I hope that he’d approve of its usage in this context, even if it would distance him from 52% of voters in his state, and countless members of his Republican party.

Political Compass

Apr 22nd, 2009

I first played around with the political compass a few years ago, and was vaguely worried that I may have betrayed my old self, and have darted to the far right without quite realising it. As it happens I haven’t, and indeed I think the score is somewhat more extreme in the other direction than it had been previously.

Your political compass
Economic Left/Right: -7.88
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -8.62
Political Compass

Now in practice of course I realise that asking everyone to march to my drum would be ineffective, impractical, and immoral. While I’m not prepared to indulge every contradictory philosophy, finding some abhorrent, and still others mutually exclusive, I realise that expecting everyone to become raging liberal-lefty is not going to work in political terms, or even practical terms. As a result were I ever to become a mainstream politician, I’d probably have to take a bit more moderate a position. This is probably why I’d never be a mainstream politician.

There are also many points raised on which my opinions are far more nuanced than a four point scale will allow. I don’t think this changes my idealism in my approach to them, but believing something is a good idea is still fundamentally separated from knowing how to implement it. I also realise that any ideas I may have will almost invariably need to work in our current social climate, and complete political upheaval required to achieve some ideals will cause more problems than it solves. While I may be less than enamoured by the pandering to popularism democracy results in, I’m far less keen on many of the alternatives which have been seen. I may very well love everyone to live governed by rules of sunshine and happiness, but unfortunately I fear that the rules of Kalashnikovs and power would find a way to take hold.

One question intrigue me, and I’m not sure I see it as a left-right argument.

There is now a worrying fusion of information and entertainment.

The question itself could be interpreted to apply to many facets of the modern entertainment and information industries. I’m currently a big fan of Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe, but should that push me more to agree or disagree? The program is entertainment undoubtedly, but also informative, but paradoxically one of its prime thesis is to attack the way in which the news has allowed the need to deliver facts to be hijacked by the need to entertain. Is there hypocrisy in this situation? Secondly, infotainment has been one of the primary driving forces of the web and internet, with sites like Wikipedia being both methods of entertainment and sources of information. While I think letting entertainment get in the way of your facts is a Bad Thing™ I don’t think I could say the same for the reverse, although perhaps the end result is inevitable.

Fighting terror with terror

Apr 10th, 2009

In attempting to ‘combat terrorism’ the British government has been promoting fears of its own, namely fears of terrorism. All too often this has been in the form of encouraging the British public to be suspicious of everything around them, even going as far as promoting fear of photographers. Most disturbingly, this has been accompanied by police harassing photographers, as well as more troublesome discussion of legal restrictions against the photography of police officers. It is not difficult to see why this is a problem.1
It doesn’t help that pre-existing assumptions and stereotypes mean that a lot of these campaigns contain embedded racism and xenophobia. while the campaigns don’t mention it specifically, the characteristic that will make a person using a mobile phone, or camera look dodgy is, for a lot of people, a middle eastern appearance. If you think I am over-reacting in this case, I can indicate several situations in which air passengers panicked about fellow travellers because they were of Arab appearance.2

The latest campaigns from the British Transport police continues this tradition. Below are two desgins that were rejected.3

Whats he doing sat alone? I bet hes planning to bomb something. Better report it, just in caseThis duck wont be able to make a bomb because it is a duck. But you should be scared anyway.

Click for full size

  1. Also, as I write this, BBC News 24 keeps mentioning that the police raids in several Northern English cities have revealed photographs of possible terrorist targets. No mention how these differer from tourist photos. []
  2. Of course, in some of these situations other ‘reasons’ were given. However I can’t help feel that none of these ‘reasons’ would have raised suspicion is the passengers were not of Middle Eastern appearance []
  3. Of course they are actually parodies. Although I realise that it can be difficult to tell when faced with some of the real posters. []