None so blind as those who will not see

Interesting how things can come together …

For instance, I was delighted to read last week that “The boss of a British company that has sold million of dollars worth of “bomb detectors” to Iraq’s security forces has been arrested on suspicion of fraud.” The “bomb detectors” in question are hi-tech looking gadgets based on water dowsing principles and are, if I may slip into complex scientific terminology for a moment, a scam – a very lucrative scam, retailing at $8000 per unit. Unfortunately they are also a scam that actively costs lives due to their total inability to detect explosives. Not only do they not work, they cannot work, any more than you could make a car engine with a couple of unrelated pipes and bits of metal and a can of petrol.

And they still have their supporters, not that they would have a vested interest in not looking stupid or anything.

I first heard about these things when Ben Goldacre mentioned them on back in November. It takes until now to arrest the creep on the direct orders of the Chief Constable of Somerset & Avon, the Serious Fraud Office having apparently been using a similar sort of detector to smell rats until now.

How was it possible for someone to get away so long with selling this extra virgin snake oil? It can’t all have been vested interests and too many people making too much money to rock the boat. Was it because the “detectors” look exciting hi-tech? Or that they have a convincingly scientific-sounding name, the ADE-651? Or was it the sheer Goebbels-like level of bullshit, no one quite daring to question that maybe they don’t actually work because, well, they’re based on water dowsing principles and that works, doesn’t it, I mean, there must be something in it?

Hold that thought.

Meanwhile, Radio 4’s Sunday morning Point of View was from Lisa Jardine, eloquently advocating a decent scientific education for all: not to turn everyone into scientists, note, but to make everyone capable of understanding science. A handy spin-off of a good scientific education would be the ability to spot bullshit generally. Well, I’m all for that. She would like to start at the very top: she laments the fact that “fewer than one in five sitting MPs has a higher education qualification in science or medicine.”

It would be lovely, so lovely to think that everyone (especially politicians) was able to detect fake science, pseudo theories, unsupported dogma and general BS at fifty paces. The ADE-651, the front page of the Daily Mail, the theological insights of Abu Hamza could all be consigned to the dustbin of history by sheer common sense and humanity. And there’s certainly no reason why it couldn’t start in Parliament.

But here I would sound a cautionary note and draw attention to my current reading, Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. I’m currently on the chapter where he gleefully skewers post-structuralism, which got a stranglehold on intellectual thought in the 70s and 80s and meant that people could criticise the E=MC2 equation for being sexist and still be taken seriously. Earlier he has laid into Thatcher and Reagan’s cheerfully fact-free fantasies about making the rich even richer so that their wealth can trickle down to the rest of us (hence the plethora of Fred Goodwin Memorial Hospitals everywhere) and letting the market solve everything (hence our thriving, dynamic railway system, the envy of the world).

The relevance of this to Lisa Jardine? Well, unfortunately Wheen does make the point that the first British Prime Minister to hold a science degree was M.H. Thatcher, BSc(Oxon). The lady, indeed, whose coat of arms includes an image of Sir Isaac Newton. No slave to blind dogma she, eh? Right. True, she went all the way to Oxford to get that degree and all around the world as PM, but she never really travelled much further than the borders of 1930s Grantham. I have the horrible feeling that, to her, the viability or otherwise of the electronic bomb dowsers would be of secondary importance. What would matter would be if there was a market for that sort of thing.

Granted this is a sample of one, but we may sadly have to conclude that a good scientific education isn’t necessarily going to solve everything.

But it couldn’t hurt.

Ben solves the second homes allowance row

Most will agree that our MPs need a second home. They need a base in London within easy striking distance of Westminster. It’s not enough to suggest that they check in at a hotel or a B&B. To do a job like that you need a home where you can just turn up. Most MPs do not use the second home as a pad to put their mistress up in. Non-London based MPs only really need a small flat.

It’s also reasonable that certain expenses could be claimed for the second home. They’re paid more money than I’ll ever make but it’s peanuts compared to some London salaries.

The problem arises when they start to juggle the numbers, declaring their “second home” as the one that will benefit them financially the most.

So, whoever is in charge of these things should simply declare that for purposes of Parliamentary expenses, the second home is a wholly-owned property (no more renting bedrooms from siblings) that of all the MP’s properties is the one nearest Westminster. Peasy.

You’re welcome.

Laptop dancing

This is a bonding exercise with my stepson. We’re sitting about five feet apart in the living room tapping away on our laptops. And I’m doing it wirelessly.

His is/was a pretty decent nearish state of the art 16th birthday present. Mine is a retired company laptop with a small crack in the lid bound together by brown parcel tape (which I removed to see exactly that it was meant to be holding together). This is mostly an exercise to acquaint myself with the keyboard and layout. It’s pretty good for writing on. Better than the desktop ornament, anyway. I’m pretty certain Best Beloved is on the main machine in our room as I write this. We have finally achieved the goal of all twenty first century families, each of us being on his or her own separate computer and not talking to anyone else.

When the firm announced one of its periodic purges of no longer maintained equipment, I put myself down for a laptop on the offchance. I thought I could do with a typewriter to replace my 10-year-old, much loved but essentially defunct IBM Thinkpad (which I bought with money received for His Majesty’s Starship. A true writer’s laptop.). This came with hard disk wiped and a copy of Windows XP – nothing else. Then Bonusbarn pointed out we have some wireless adapters knocking around and I thought why not?

And so, apropos of nothing, I thought I would share my thoughts on the saga of our Home Secretary and her avant garde art movie loving husband. First off, it’s pretty clear what happened. She gets phone, TV and everything as a package from a single firm, as do we. She gets a monthly bill stating everything, as do we. It runs to several pages but that’s just the way it’s laid out. The bill includes movies watched. So far the biggest surprise we’ve had is that Bonusbarn watched Pulp Fiction at 2 in the morning over halfterm (we’ve since tightened up the parental controls). Ms Smith must wish she shared the experience. Anyway, she’s a busy women. She can’t remember the last time she manually went through the phone bill. She Has People Who Do That. She threw the pile of paper at a People and said “that’s the bill, deal with it.” And sadly they did.

What absolutely no one seems to be obsessing on is that somewhere in the House of Commons is a mole leaking paperwork like this to the papers. That is a disgrace and this person must be hunted down and destroyed. Though it’s probably not a priority in the House of Speaker Martin, where the historic privileges of our elected representatives that were literally won in blood are secondary to who gets to wear the nice robes.

Also worrying is that the national domestic budget is in the hands of a woman who can’t check her phone bill. Not even to weed out the business calls. I’m sure she racks up a hefty phone bill in the course of her duties, and naturally it should be claimed as an expense, but I can’t believe every single call was work-related. Or maybe she just makes domestic calls from her sister’s flat.

I would have liked to call this post “the porn ultimatum” but sadly the Sun got there first. I don’t often say this to the Sun, but, nice one.