Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Bobbies Balls Up

This story just runs and runs.

Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes, 27, was shot dead in error by police at Stockwell Tube station as part of the inquiry into attempted bomb attacks. He was later found not to be connected to the incidents.

Met Police Chief Sir Ian Blair has apologised to the family and warned that more innocent people might be killed in the fight against terrorism.”

Not withstanding the human tragedy involved in the death of an innocent bystander during the hysteria surrounding the London bombings, there are serious implications to be considered regarding the way Britain is policed.

Many people, particularly tourists who don't know any better, still labour under the misapprehension that British police do not carry guns. This hasn't been true for many years – but to get the public to believe this is very difficult. Like an urban myth that just won't go away, John Charles murder continues to haunt the psyche of the public and he conscience of most right-thinking police officers.

Sir Ian Blair's apology – coupled with the warning that others will be killed in similar circumstances- is as obscene as it is disingenuous.

Forgetting the role of the senior officers in charge on the day and the media hysteria that helped to set the tone for this tragedy – there really can be no excuse for the officers who actually pulled the trigger. Whilst not being able to condone their action, it is a humane reaction to feel some sympathy for the officers and their families. There sympathy stops. They must accept their guilt for the tragic events that lead to this needless and avoidable death.

The bottom line is they made a terrible mistake. I'm sure they know that now. By admitting their guilt and so pleading to a charge of manslaughter, they can bring some kind of closure to this tragedy. By “stalling” with public enquiries and threats of “strikes” by colleagues, the police in general and the officers in particular bring nothing but discredit on themselves and the force at large.

No-one should any longer be under any illusion – British police carry guns and they will use them. What should be avoided is the public perception that they are a bunch of trigger-happy amigos who, if everything goes belly-up, will struggle violently to avoid any responsibility for their actions.

This must not be allowed.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

This Was the Week that Was

So, co-incidentally - the week has been nicely rounded off with the Sunday Times reprising some of the themes I have been developing. Let's round them up!

Happy-Slappers – What's in a name?

In October 2004 David Morley was sitting on a bench on the south bank of the Thames when he was attacked by a group of youthful thugs. They kicked his head in and made a video of it on a mobile phone. Just this week the perpetrators were convicted and sentenced to prison terms for manslaughter. One of them is a sixteen year old girl. Her name: Chelsea Kayleigh Peaches O'Mahoney. Why this crime should attract the sobriquet of “Happy Slapping” by the media is another tragedy. See blog of 28 Jan.

Throw Money at It!

Sorry, I lied – here's a new one. Britain is to send troops to Afghanistan to help police that troubled corner of the world. Actually, police is not very appropriate as policemen are not going – it's combat troops – about 5000 of them. This is nothing new – points out Simon Jenkins of The Sunday Times, as UK plc has been involved with insurgents in Afghanistan off and on for more than 150 years - without conspicuous success. Actually, without any success at all! Neither, lest we all get inferiority complexes, has anyone else been even moderately successful in Afghanistan. Here's an idea that hasn't been tried. Throw money at it!

I actually was moved after the US invasion of Afghanistan to email 'ol Dubbya with just this plan. I didn't get a reply. Mal's “throw money at it” plan involves making the Afghan people so wealthy that when Whose-a-ma-bin-liner and his buddies turn up and propose a raid on the capitalist infidels – they are greeted with a chorus of jeers from the prosperous peasants who are on their way to the gas station to fill their new Range Rover (good for exports) with cheap gas. (As a bonus – they will no longer have to rely on the proceeds of the opium poppy in order to feed their families.) Rich people don't make revolutions! It's simple, stupid. Throw money at it!!

Of course, most of us know little or next to nothing about Afghanistan. I suggest Caravans by James A. Michener be required reading before anyone is allowed to make political pronouncements about this ancient land. Graveyard of anyone who thinks that invading is even a remotely good idea – should be an authorised alternative name for Afghanistan.

Another really good idea would be to let the ICC really encourage Afghan cricket. They have a team and there is no reason why they could not become competitive. Encourage them. In general, the cricket playing nations do not bomb their neighbours.

Losing Mummy

Among the most heart-warming stories of the week must be the assisted suicide of Dr Anne Turner in a Swiss clinic. Dr Turner, “sentenced” to a slow, lingering death from progressive supranuclear palsey, was having none of it. Being of sound mind and reasonably affluent, she travelled with her children to Switzerland and drank (under medical supervision) a lethal cocktail – rather than face months or years in an agonising wait for a lingering and painful death.

Of course, this case highlights the inherent dangers in any regime that countenances assisted suicide; and the dangers are real and cannot - and should not - be overlooked. But, with proper safeguards to protect vulnerable, elderly relatives from possible exploitation by greedy, uncaring and vile family members; it must be possible to allow a humane society of oversee your demise without having the law threatening to intervene in what should be a private, personal decision.

ALF seeks “dreamy spires” targets

Rather worryingly, reports have surfaced explaining that the Animal Liberation Front is planning to “target” anyone (teachers, students, suppliers, etc.) connected with Oxford University in protest at the University going ahead with its plan to build a lab for animal experiments.

This is a tough one. On one hand it is quite incomprehensible how a violent attack (or worse) on a human being could advance the cause of animal welfare – or alleviate animal suffering. It is much more likely that such a successful attack would lose the ALF what public support they may have. On the other hand, how can people legitimately protest about what they see as cruelty to animals?

It's difficult not to conclude that the ALF will have shot themselves in the foot if they were to injure or kill some bricky who is building the new lab – and that is, apparently, what they are threatening to do.

As someone who is not comfortable with any cruelty to animals, I'm left with the only logical answer. Brickies are animals too – protest as you see fit – but menacing those with builder's bum is not likely to advance the cause of animal welfare. Education is really the ALF's only option.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

More About Names and Arrogance

Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
- Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Does this look and sound familiar? Willy Shakes used to do a lot of this kind of thing. Go back to an idea or theme or even rephrase a “famous” phrase. For example. later on, in Romeo and Juliet he returns to this theme and comes up with, “a rose by any other name . . . “. Bet you didn't know that!

Haven't quite finished with names. Have a look at this article about an attack on a pupil at a school in Sheffield.

Attack schoolgirl wants to return

A 12-year-old girl slashed across the face by another pupil says she wants to return to the school where it happened.

Shanni Naylor needed 30 stitches in her face after the assault during an English lesson at Myrtle Springs School in Sheffield on Wednesday afternoon.

It is believed she had intervened to stop her assailant bullying another pupil the day before.

A 12-year-old girl was arrested in connection with the attack and released on police bail until December.

It is thought the attacker used a blade from a pencil sharpener to slash her victim.”

Not very nice. However, this isn't a rant against violence in school – I only bring this up to “prove” my point about names. What kind of a name is Shanni? Now this poor little tyke may be a totally innocent victim of a vicious attack by some nutter – but what kind of a parent would name a poor innocent, little baby Shanni? This is just asking for trouble. Any girl named Shanni who arrived in any lesson I was teaching would immediately be on my “suspect” list. Certainly her parents would.

Hang on – is there something more here? The report refers to little Shanni intervening in a previous bullying attack by her assailant on another pupil. I'd like to know more about this before I passed judgement. I hope I am wrong, but it is just possible that Shanni isn't the poor, innocent victim in this fracas. So, is there an alternative story here – not reported? Possible.

Shanni kicks seven bells out of another girl (her eventual assailant) on Tuesday. On Wednesday girl attacks Shanni with sharp implement. There is no excuse for this, of course; but, if I'm investigating this case, I'm wanting to know why Shanni got slashed before I get the fourth estate involved.

And now, dealing with the parents - I can't resist the temptation to ask, as sensitively as possible, what possessed them to name their child Shanni. Maybe it's an old family name. If so, I take it all back. But, I'm sticking with my paraphrase of Shakespeare,

Why should Shanni's name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;

Mayhaps she pains the bum too much,

And deserveth whatsoever she gets!

Intelligent Design – A Misnomer on Both Counts?

Viewed Horizon, the science programme, last night regarding the theory of intelligent design. I had never really heard of this before, or if I had, it was only in passing. Very interesting!

Apparently this theory has caused quite a stir in the USA with advocates of both sides queueing up to rubbish the others' ideas. Not much new there. Darwin's theory of evolution leaves a lot to be desired. Because it operates on such an immense time scale, it is very difficult to “prove” - that is to say - actually observe a new species being evolved. Therefore, some scientists – mostly from the religious right – have postulated that Intelligent Design, by which they mean some God-like controlling factor, is a theory worthy of equal standing with Darwin. That's the rub of this particular green.

If a scientist, or indeed anyone else, was presenting this theory as a replacement for evolution, they would be on very boggy ground indeed. Darwin – while in no way providing all the answers – at least does have a lot of evidence on his side. Most convincingly (and this was not – surprisingly – mentioned in the programme) is the study of comparative anatomy.

The nutty professor who taught me Comparative Anatomy at CMSU in the 1970's has – no doubt – long since passed into the world of practical experience in not being around. In other words, he's probably dead. There's the rub. Ever since man has been able to think and be aware that he is thinking, he has asked, “How did I get here and where am I going?” We're looking for answers, and both Darwin and Intelligent Design attempt to provide some.

Comparative anatomy, or more precisely comparative embryology, provides some interesting clues to where we came from and how we got here. You can “read” the history of man in the development of each human embryo. The human embryo in the early stages of development closely resembles a fish. It has gill slits and fins. You can follow this line of development right through looking like an amphibian, a reptile, a bird and finally a mammal. It really is easy to see. This we learned by dissecting a shark and a cat and looking at analogous structures in the adult animals and relating these to pictures of the embryos in textbooks. It's quite easy to see the relationships. Honest.

What bearing does this have on evolution? The “evidence” for evolution is clearly there in the embryos of modern man. What isn't there is God's part in this plan.

Lest we become arrogant in our scientific understanding, perhaps God has arranged this little “trick” just to confuse us – or humour himself. I, for one, would very much like to think that God has a sense of humour! Likewise it is certainly not beyond the capabilities of the creator to leave conflicting “clues” - either intentionally or through a sense of fun. None of this has any real bearing on God v. Darwin. What insights Darwin shared with us do not seriously conflict with Genesis. Genesis tells us that God created the world we see in pretty much the same order that evolution does. Only the time scale is “different” - but who's counting?

Where this controversy becomes more ominous is when two groups of scientists “square off”, choose up sides and start rubbishing each other. Honestly, you would have thought that respectable scientists would know better! Then, not content with staging a scientific punch-up, the supporters of Intelligent Design try to hi-jack the education system and demand equal time for their theory to be taught alongside Darwin. This argument is as old as the Founding Fathers – who demanded, and got, the Constitutional prohibition against the State having anything to do with religion. It appears that Intelligent Design is the religious rights' way of superseding Darwin and replacing evolution with God's plan for mankind – and putting it into our public schools. What looks like an interesting intellectual argument between two sets of scientists becomes, instead, a nightmare conflict between two sets of “fanatics” - one religious and one scientific! Fantastic!

Here's a plan – why not let children hear both sides of the story and make up their own minds. But, let them hear it from their teachers, their pastors, their parents and anyone else they might like to consult – in the place where they would usually hear from these people. Teachers in schools. Pastors in churches. Parents in their home.

Intellectual freedom demands intellectual honesty. “Intelligent” in Intelligent Design limits God to our understanding of what intelligence is. I'm not happy with that. “Design” in the same phrase pre-supposes that God has it all worked out and also limits how he will relate to mankind. Not happy with that either.

Better plan – you take your God your way and I'll take him my way – and we'll both boycott the other bastards. That's the real American way!

Friday, January 27, 2006

A rose by any other name

In the dim and distant past – when I was a useful member of society and a teacher with more than 30 years' experience – one of my “favourite” lessons had as its theme, “Why I'm not a very important person in the great cosmic scheme of things”. Sounds good, doesn't it! I enjoyed it – pupils hated it.

One of the real difficulties teachers face is knowing when to abandon the carefully-crafted lesson plan you have lovingly and skilfully prepared and move on to something that may be initially “painful” but, in the long run, ultimately more important than Shakespeare's sonnet 54. This is one of those occasions.

Those with sufficient teaching experience will recognise the symptoms easily enough. Pupils have stopped engaging in the topic at hand, i.e. they are no longer listening to a word you are saying. Your usual techniques for dealing with this all too common situation no longer work. Your attempts to regain the pupils' attention are met with either bored acquiescence (not a problem) or truculent animosity (this is a big problem)! Teacher really needs to get a grip and fast!

First of all you will probably have to shout and at least pretend to be very angry and disappointed. You may well need not have to pretend. Having regained the pupils' attention, the rest of the lesson goes something like this: “In the great cosmic scheme of things you people are really not very important!” Best delivered with clear disdain in your voice and louder than normal. The effect you are searching for is “scathing, disappointed and annoyed”. “Disgusted” often also works.

Pupils don't, as you may well imagine, take too kindly to being told – no matter how well-meaning you may appear - that they are not really very important. It's as well to qualify your remarks by explaining that at this point in their lives pupils are really only important to themselves, their friends and their families. They will become important to society in general when they have matured enough to ( a ) listen when told to by the teacher, ( b ) achieved something worthwhile to society in general or ( c ) won the lottery! Until then, it would really be best if they would forget their agenda – whatever that was – and followed yours. On a good day I could make this “lecture” last for 30 or 40 minutes. As I said, pupils hated it.

As a corollary to this, over the years I developed an innate sense of which pupils were most likely to suffer from what is essentially an over-inflated ego simply by looking at their names on a list. All pupils named Kevin, Greg, Suzie or Samantha were bound to be trouble. This is not very scientific - but I swear it works. I developed a theory to account for this. The more “strange” a name a pupil had the more likely it was that they would be troublemakers. I swear it works! But, what's the mechanism?

I imagined that it would be something simple like: parents name child after film star, Rock Hudson; child learns that he is named after someone famous and begins to assume he is famous; child assumes that he is far more important than he is. Child begins to exhibit those qualities that lead to a breakdown in class discipline. Pretty neat, huh!

As a theory, this has a lot to offer.

Only one problem. It mostly works the other way.

I know this because I like football. Real football. Gridiron football. Not that “nancy” effort that should be called soccer, instead of football. Having not much else to do, I decided to investigate my theory with a scientific approach and real data. I found that for the last year data is available, 2004, the most popular names for boys born in that year were:

  • Jacob

  • Michael

  • Joshua

  • Matthew

  • Ethan

  • Andrew

  • Daniel

  • William

  • Joseph

  • Christopher

These were obtained from the Dept. of Social Security web site. Good to know they're doing something useful.

I wouldn't have any problem with any of these – except for, maybe, Daniel. I've seen a few Daniels in my time that would drive you to drink!

Now to make this really scientific we need something to compare these with. I chose players in the NFL. If my theory, developed over many years of observing real children, is correct, then NFL players should have mostly “normal” names. Makes sense. By definition they have all, OK mostly all, graduated from institutions of higher education. They have been successful – in educational terms. Not a chance! Fully 33% of the players currently on NFL rosters have names that range from just weird to absolutely so far down the left field line and in foul territory as to probably be in another state – if not country!

Some examples: Flozell Adams (sounds like you should do it to your teeth), Boss Bailey and his brother, obviously Champ, Anquan Bolden, the Barber brothers, Tiki and Ronde, Dre' Bly (what kind of name could Dre' be?), Plaxico Burress (one of my favourites – do you suppose he was conceived in a place called Plaxico – ala' Brooklyn Beckham?), Romby Bryant (perhaps his head came out as a mathematical shape - like a rhombus, poor kid), Rock Cartwright (now this is a football player), Koy Detmer (related to a carp?), Braylon Edwards (is this a new type of fabric?), Bubba Franks (obviously the original good ol' boy), Jocelio Hanson (I'm not making these up!), Tebucky Jones (OK, Mr and Mrs Jones – what were you thinking?), Daylon McCutcheon (another new fabric?), Stockar McDougal (he was meant to be either a demolition derby driver or a cowboy, what happened?), Monsanto Pope (named after the chemical company?), Robaire Smith (OK, I've got the hang of this one! Mr and Mrs Smith were watching a French film and heard the hero being called Robert!), Jerheme Urban (same principle – heard Jeremy somewhere), Pork Chop Womack (he's on the Seahawks roster, honest), Kailee Wong (in England this is a girl's name spelled Kayleigh or Keighleigh).

I think you've got the idea. But, just to prove the point – take the Manning brothers, Peyton and Eli, sons of Archie. Notwithstanding the obvious advantage genetically in having an NFL quarterback for a dad, Archie had the sense to apply his knowledge of NFL players to give his new-born sons weird names, just to make sure they will make millions and keep him comfortable in his retirement. Way to go Archie!

All those years I tried very hard to inculcate a generation of kids with the eminently sensible plan of naming offspring sensibly. God, I hope they weren't listening.

For comparison log on to the net and search for United States Senators. I can assure you there ain't no Bubbas or Jocelios or Tikis. Something interesting is going on here – that's for sure!!

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Leprechauns versus Gnomes

How Association Football Hoodwinks Joe Public

Twas only last year when long-suffering and easily fooled Joe Public was presented with the Manchester United take-over by the Glazer clan and, as usual, failed miserably to see or understand the real significance of this multi-million pound takeover.

Because the media never ask the right questions, most football fans cheerfully accept the shibboleth that there is no money in football and, if their chosen team is to be successful, it will be either by luck and good fortune or though the beneficence of some latter-day sugar daddy like Roman Abramovich.

Mr Malcolm Glazer's business career is well-documented and extremely successful. Some of his methods have brought criticism over the years, but he has, it appears, remained on the right side of the law and has certainly been successful – particularly in terms of the money made by his NFL team, the Tampa Bay Bucs. Strange no-one seems to have thought to ask why he would want to invest hundred of millions of pounds in an industry that (we are constantly being told) is a bottomless pit for the monied classes to pour their largess – with no prospect of breaking even – much less turning a profit.

Football fans who are so stupid as to believe that all teams are short of money would do well to keep reminding themselves that Mr Glazer and his associates are first and foremost businessmen – not football fans. Some sort of transparency regarding the state of the finances of your beloved team might go a long way towards restoring the public's confidence in the game.

What seems incontestable is that Mr Glazer is almost certainly more like a gnome of Zurich than a friendly leprechaun.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Back to the Thickthorne roundabout

Strangely enough, they've done it again! Not only has the Thickthorne roundabout cost millions, but it also was done without the Highways Agency being in control of what was happening?

Reports in the Eastern Daily Press today suggest that the "new" road is nothing more than a catalogue of errors and overspends. As usual, throughout this whole saga, no-one is actually asking the right questions.

How in the world anyone could possibly spend 7 million on what essentially is a simple widening exercise to an existing road?

Next time something like this needs doing - let a few unemployed navvies with wheelbarrows loose - they'll do it better and a lot cheaper!

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

OK - just for fun, let's start with the infamous Thickthorn Roundabout

Cost of link road is higher than planned

Norfolk council tax payers might have to shoulder the burden of a 2.1 million pound overspend on a roundabout and link road near Norwich council bosses have revealed.

A host of additional expenses for the new Thickthorn roundabout and A 11 link road has meant the original budget for the scheme of 4.8 million pounds has burgeoned to 7.3 million.

A county council's Cabinet, which will meet on January 9, will be asked to accept a recommendation that the additional 2,150,636 pounds should come from the “capital programme for the Transport Maintenance Reserve” - with the Government paying the extra 500,000 pounds.

Adrian Gunson, Cabinet member for transport and planning, said he would also be asking for an inquiry into the Highways Agency's dealings with the council, which he believed had compounded problems.

“Obviously I am distressed by the extra cost. The recommendation in the report is that it is going to have to be met by the county,” he said.

“I hate using this argument but a lot of the problems were matters out of our control.” Extra costs include paying for winter working because construction was later than envisioned (160,000 pounds); increases identified through detailed design and contract processes (878,400 pounds); and anti-skid surfacing(220,000 pounds).

The Highways Agency, responsible for the Thickthorn roundabout, unexpectedly insisted that widened lanes were freshly resurfaced together with other edicts that were not initially clear.

A report to the Cabinet says increased demands from the agency account for about half the extra costs. Mr Gunson added, “The money has not been wasted, it has been well spent on legitimate items.

“There is an issue with the Highways Agency, which should not have been so awkward with us and there does not seem to be any way to appeal against their decisions. I shall be asking for an investigation at a higher level.”

Negotiations are taking place with the agency to secure a contribution of 500,000 pounds for the “betterment” works demanded where things have been replaced to a higher standard than before.