February 2008

I recently came across somebody quoting software developer Jamie W. Zawinski:

Professionalism has no place in art, and hacking is art. Software Engineering might be science; but that’s not what I do. I’m a hacker, not an engineer.

If the quote is accurate, that’s a shockingly ignorant and wrong-headed thing for Jamie Zawinski to say. I know artists, including Mrs Impala, and they not only take their art seriously but they also treat their fans and customers with the greatest of respect — often more respect than they probably deserve. To paraphrase something Mrs Impala says, “When I’m on stage, the audience owns me.”

The artists I know — well, most of them — behave with great professionalism, and get incredibly frustrated by the dilettantes and prima donnas and selfish, lazy artists who don’t act with professionalism: the ones who turn up to gigs late or too intoxicated to work, the ones who fight over credit, the ones who have no respect for their audiences (paying or not), the self-indulgent and egotistical ones, the ones who ponce about demanding attention and respect and giving nothing back. Even if they are talented, they’re poison.

I have no idea whether Zawinski is one of them. I’ve never worked with him, so I couldn’t say. If he wants to proudly proclaim that he’s unprofessional, that’s his decision to make. But for him to impugn the artistic credentials of those writers, musicians, actors, programmers and other actors who aren’t jerks because they aren’t jerks, well, that’s pretty poor, and a big clue that perhaps Zawinski is one of those jerks himself.

One should also remember that, fundamentally, “professional” just means you get paid for doing it, and as Terry Pratchett wrote in Soul Music:

‘In my experience,’ said Glod, ‘what every true artist wants, really wants, is to be paid.’


The Scottish government is proposing changes to the law which will, if enacted, rule that adult women have reduced legal capacity compared to men. Scottish law normally does not allow intoxication as a defence:

The law takes the view we are all responsible for our actions. And, if our actions include getting completely pissed, then we are still responsible. Being drunk is no excuse.

But the Scottish Parliament wants to give women reduced legal capacity: while men are deemed capable to consent to actions they agree to while drunk, women will be deemed unable to consent to having sex if they have been drinking.

There is something deeply suspect in the notion that if a woman and a man meet in a club and both get drunk and end up having sex with each other then the woman will be deemed not to be responsible in any way if she regrets it later but the man will continue to be held completely responsible. It does not seem fair for two equal participants to have entirely different legal liability.

I cannot imagine many other areas of Scottish life where it would be accepted that women should be defined as having a reduced legal capacity. This proposal seems to be a muddle of a long-obsolete view that women are frailer creatures than men with an overtly ideological view women are never wrong. It is a pernicious combination few in political life are brave enough to challenge.

There is of course long-standing tradition behind this. For most of history, women have been treated as children at best, or property at worse. Diminished legal capacity goes hand-in-hand with being treated as having reduced mental capacity to make decisions, control your own finances and, ultimately, control over your own body.

It’s quite sobering — pun not intended — to see how the Suffragettes allowed the women’s movement to be hijacked by the worst excesses of Victorian faux-morality, treating women as too incompetent to be permitted to make choices about birth control and sex. It took half a century and the social disruption of two world wars for feminism to recover from that mistake, and then a decade or two later, they’re doing it again.

I recently stumbled across a quiz that offered to pick which candidate’s policies best suited you. I don’t often take Internet quizzes, but for a lark I did this one. I was curious as to whether it would rate Obama or Edwards more strongly. To my surprise, I was matched with a total unknown, to me at least: Dennis Kucinich. Reading the Wikipedia page on him, all I can say is, damn, an Establishment American politician with sensible policies. How did that happen? Did he miss the memo or something?

Hardly surprising, the Republicans all rated poorly, but the Democrats were totally not what I expected. I didn’t recognise most of the names, and I would have expected John Edwards to rate much higher rather than neck-and-neck with Hillary. Go figure.

92% Dennis Kucinich
91% Mike Gravel
83% Chris Dodd
81% Barack Obama
79% Bill Richardson
78% Hillary Clinton
78% John Edwards
76% Joe Biden
39% Rudy Giuliani
33% Ron Paul
30% John McCain
22% Mike Huckabee
20% Mitt Romney
13% Tom Tancredo
11% Fred Thompson

This is a good time to mention just how many of the Republican candidates resemble villains from Buffy The Vampire Slayer — in the case of some of them, physically as well as politically.

It seems that leopards aren’t the only ones that don’t change their spots, neither does the Catholic Church.

In Ireland, Cardinal Desmond Connell (who was previously urged to resign over his indifference to the child abuse committed by priests under his responsibility) has suddenly gone to the Irish High Court to block the publication of Church documents relating to the child abuse — after promising full disclosure.

The move has lead to a battle in the Church, with at least one figure publicly accusing Cardinal Connell of a cover up:

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, a former Vatican diplomat and rising star of the Irish Catholic church, wanted to hand over the files as part of his policy to create more openness in the Dublin diocese.

But without informing Martin, Connell went to the high court on Wednesday night to seek an injunction preventing the files from being handed over.


Leading Irish canon lawyer and priest Tom Doyle has openly accused Connell of a cover up.

“The only reason why Cardinal Connell would seek to prevent access to the files is because they contain incriminating evidence. He is attempting to hide behind legal doctrine. This is not privileged information,’ he said.

Dr Aust discusses the attempt by Dr John Briffa to convince people to buy more bottled water (much of which is actually just tap water!) by emphasising the apparent risk from drinking tap water: drinking chlorinated water regularly over large periods of time may be associated with a small increase in the risk of bladder cancer:

SO… what is the snag with the statement as presented on John Briffa’s blog?

To my way of thinking, the problem is the lack of explanation, and particularly of context. The basic statement “there is quite a body of evidence linking the consumption of tap water with an increased risk of cancer” leaves out several crucial pieces of information that you need to put this information in context.


Anyway, without this kind of information, which you are not given by being told “There is scientific evidence that cholorinated water increase cancer risk” you cannot make a sensible judgement about whether to be worried.

Instead, you just worry. And then drive off to the supermarket in your 4×4 SUV to get a huge multi-pack of bottled mineral water. Ker-chhhinnng.

Context is vital. As it turns out, the studies are not even close to clear: they suggest, but do not prove, a small increased risk of bladder cancer. Dr Aust goes on to suggest a less misleading way to put the risk in perspective:

Risk factors are interesting. They are the meat and drink of medical and scientific papers about causes of disease, but are notoriously poorly understood. And peoples’ reaction to them is quite strange and unpredictable. The same “risk rate” means different things to people in different contexts.

An interesting way to probe how you view a “risk factor”, I find, is to “invert” it – to turn it back to front. This is because “increase” always sounds more scary, and hence more useful to someone trying to sales-pitch you, than “decrease”.
“Do you know you can reduce your risk of bladder cancer by about one-sixth if you never drink, or bathe in, or swim in, chlorinated water?”

I bet that most people, on reading something like that, would immediately ask “Okay, what’s my risk of bladder cancer now?” — a question that all too often gets forgotten if you describe risk in terms of an increase. (The answer is: not very high. Most bladder cancers are diagnosed in people in their 70s or older, and they are one of the more easily treated cancers.)

They pander to intolerant Christian Fundamentalists who hate free-thought:

Social networking site, MySpace.com, panders to religious intolerants by deleting atheist users, groups and content.

Early this month, MySpace again deleted the Atheist and Agnostic Group (35,000 members). This deletion, due largely to complaints from people who find atheism offensive, marks the second time MySpace has cancelled the group since November 2007.

More here.

University of Tokyo Professor Shinji Suzuki plans to throw an origami plane out of the International Space Station from orbit, 400 kilometres above the surface of the Earth.

This would be the longest, fastest, most difficult paper plane glide in history, with the plane starting at Mach 20 but slowing down to Mach 7 during re-entry.

Professor Suzuki hopes to get permission for the 20cm long paper plane, folded into the shape of the  Space Shuttle, to be thrown out by Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata later this year.

It might seem rather whimsical, but the professor insists there’s serious merit to it as well, and hopes to inspire new designs for re-entry vehicles and high-altitude planes, as well as simulating interest in science and technology among the public.