Normal for Portsmouth

Officially, I am supposed to visit the jobcentre every week, spending ten minutes with my "Jobsearch Advisor" (aka Dole Officer). This is a legal requirement for me to receive GPB57 per week.

In practice, appointments are set for every two weeks because there just aren't enough hours in the day to process every "jobseeker" every week. And meetings last more like three minutes.

Two months ago, a load of civil servants were made redundant nationwide, and in particular a full half of the staff in my local jobcentre were made, er, jobless. The official visit duration was cut from ten minutes to six, so the actual duration shrinks correspondingly.

Today's visit was to discuss the two week course they sent me on recently. In fact it was to tell me I have to go on another course, this one lasting thirteen weeks.

It's voluntary. I don't have to go. I am perfectly within my rights to say no. In the same way I'm within my rights to tell them I don't want their money so could they please stop paying me. With the same effect, in fact.

So, in four weeks (barring another administrative cockup), I move from "actively seeking work" to "intensively seeking work" with a company who, at some point in the three month run, will try to find me a work placement in a firm not more than ninety minutes train travel away,

That's a "work placement" not a "job placement". I don't get paid - instead I get "valuable experience", "reintegration into the working environment" and "a useful source of references". The firm presumably get someone who doesn't want to be there and does exactly as much work as his wages merit.

I've actually been on such a placement once before, at a crappy art gallery. They wanted me to set up an extensive website for them, catalogue twenty years worth of exhibitions, digitise their video collection, and repair their computers.

After three weeks I was asked to leave because I had an attitude problem - I'd told them their expensive video digitisation system would never function, and they'd paid three times the going rate for a room of obsolete computers that couldn't do what they wanted. Actually I was being diplomatic.

I later learned that most employees lasted about a month there - though I had one friend who walked out in disgust after five minutes. As I should have done.

That was 2001, and they've only just got a small website up.

Walking home through the shopping precinct, a middle aged woman asked me if I could spare money for a cup of tea - in exchange for a small purple flower. I gave her a coin and said she could give the flower to someone else...but she insisted on reading my palm.

She didn't actually read my palm - she put a stone on it and told me the lines said I was unhappy. The poor woman was obviously trying to do a cold reading and wasn't any good at it. So I helped her out, saying I was a journalist with girlfriend trouble. She told me I needed to learn to be happy with myself.

I had been wondering whether the whole routine was to distract me while a confederate picked my coat pockets. But no, there were no little movements to indicate a subtle hand. And in any case, any thief who wanted the used tissue paper in my left pocket or the fig biscuit in my right was welcome to them.

On the road just outside my house, a rather nice looking young man suddenly stopped his bicycle and swore loudly. "A cap from my tooth just fell out", he explained. He searched around on the road, found the cap...and put it back in his mouth.

Back home a letter was waiting for me. The gist was, "You emailed us your CV but you didn't get the job. However if you want to be on our non-paper database, please send us your paper CV".

We have a saying around here. "NFP" - Normal For Portsmouth. It means "slightly insane".


Eighteen months ago, the government spent GBP40 on getting me a pair of spectacles.

According the my "jobseekers agreement", I need to be ready and able to work. I can't work well without good vision, which means I need the specs, which I can't afford on my own, so they bought them for me, so I can get a job. Logical, yes?

Last month, someone trod on them, and they're beyond repair. So I need replacement specs. But I can't get them because I'm only allowed a new pair once every two years. This is to ensure I don't make a fortune by selling them to the hordes who share exactly my pattern of astigmatism, getting them replaced for free each time.

My eyesight is sufficiently bad that close work with screen text and the fiddlier hardware becomes...problematic. Rebuilding two computers last week took a lot longer than it should. So, with one hand officialdom propels me towards the workplace, and with the other it makes sure I can't work properly there.

This would be more ironic if there were any jobs around.

I've got myself a cheap off-the-shelf pair for reading, for use until December when I can get a repeat prescription. Anything more than two foot away, they blur into oblivion.

Think of a German-Jewish chemist circa 1920. That's how they make me look. Oy Vey, Mein Herr.

A very pleasant day out with C, trawling bookshops for the travelguides he collects, and trawling cafes for tea to drink while skimming them.

After buying four books and two magazines on travel in Eastern Europe, we ended up sitting on the grass, looking at birds. What? No no no. In a park with a great big birdcage in the centre, containing colourful parrots and cockatiels. And proletarian pigeons on top.

We bumped into someone I went to university with, many moons ago. Ralph E - one of those people who's a lovable disaster in almost every respect, but amazingly able in one or two.

When I first met him he had a broken leg from snowboarding. When we were all being shown how to use the university's email, his first (and only) message was to a department head, jokingly asking if she wanted his babies. He got banned from using email.

During the two years he lasted on the course, I don't think I saw him arrive on time once. Not that he did much arriving. It's possible there were times when he wasn't stoned - or maybe he was never stoned. There was no way to tell the difference.

Once, when he'd asked me to come and see him in the halls of residence but neglected to tell me the building or room number, I asked a caretaker on the off-chance he'd be able to find out. All the caretakers knew exactly where Ralph lived, and spoke of him with strained faces.

After being thrown off the course, he moved to Brighton, where he signed with a record company...who turned out to be a scam. He got on another course at the University of Brighton - and thrown off two years later.

So what was his amazing ability? He was a bloody brilliant jazz pianist. We recorded a semi-improvised track, which I probably still have somewhere. The keyboard was, of course, broken and stained, but his hands could just fly across it striking a rapid succession of complex chords.

Now, he's got a studio and records techno and experimental stuff. He's on MySpace and SoundClick as...CatGotWasted.

With any luck I'll be visiting H soon in his new home. He wants to know if I'm any good at painting walls. Hah!

Postman Kap

I've been commenting on blogs again, covering some of the subjects close to my cold, skeptical heart.

On agnosticism.

Has any one here ever, ever met an agnostic who went to church "just in case god exists"?

No, neither have I. Odd how some people who are quite happy to live as an atheist are scared to think as one.

On education

I can't speak for the US, but here in the UK, the emphasis is entirely on getting badly performing students up to a certain minimum level in "key skills" - numeracy, literacy and IT.

There is no encouragement for low and average achieving students to aim higher than "adequate". And none for high achievers to reach higher than they've already got.

You might call it a culture of mediocrity. Illiteracy is seen as a problem to be solved, rather than literacy seen as something to be maximised.

On freedom of expression.

Idiots have the right to free speech. They just don't have the right to automatic respect for what they say. They tend to confuse the two.

On alien encounters.

There is a vast amount of evidence for extraterrestrial visitation. There is also a vast amount for each and every religion, and a lot of mutually exclusive conspiracy theories. At the time of Galileo the church had whole libraries of evidence for terracentrism, and right now there are extensive websites citing arguments for creationism.

Yes, there’s a lot of evidence around for all these ideas. It’s just that none of it’s any good.

On, creationism. I decided not to post this one - there's not much point in talking to people who long ago decided not to listen.

Oh I see. If there is a creator than it must be the christian god, who never forgives people for using the intellects he gave them, and casts them into hell. So I force myself to not believe in creation, to avoid contemplating the prospect of hellfire.

And atheism is a theistic position.

Just a few small details. To accept a creator is not the same as to accept any god posited by any religion, let alone specifically the christian one.

The "pit of hell" notion is the result of a mistranslation in 2 Kings.

And atheism is theistic in the same way vegeratianism is a kind of meat eating.

And on, er, creationism again.

A student journalist wrote a very silly and confused article on creationism in schools, suggesting that it has a place in ethical debate - and besides that, it might be true because, like, scientists don't know everything.

I wrote a response to just one of her points.

"the theory of evolution is also not testable"

Of course it is. If Darwin's theory of "descent with modification by natural selection" is true, then some events are possible and others impossible. If you document the impossible events happening, you've disproved evolution.

You test a theory by trying to make it fail. You do that by searching for phenomena that it can't explain. If you fail to find any, the theory is provisionally "proven" - until you do.

If changes in species characteristics over generations are caused by something other than the mechanism proposed by Darwin, then the pattern of change would be different.

You might get reptiles growing fur, or horses developing wheels, or humans getting a third eye. Darwin's mechanism not only explains why reptiles can develop scales, it also explains why they can't develop fur - and why they can modify their scales into feathers.

No reptile has fur, there are no equines that run on wheels, and there's no sign of humans developing extra eyes.

Until something like that happens, Darwin's theory is safe.

Actually, there's a lot more to it than that. What I've given is a Popperian view of science, which has the advantage of being neat and simple, but the disadvantage of being oversimple.

She ought to know Popper's work already, as she quotes Kuhn, his protege and critic.

Imre Lakatos gave a much more refined version, whereby scientists deal with apparent disproofs - or "anomalies" - with a body of auxiliary hypotheses that temporarily shore up the theory they're investigating, until either the anomalies can be explained by the main theory...or the theory eventually collapses under the weight of so many unexplained anomalies.

But I wouldn't want to burden a journalist with such detail. They're generally not very bright people, and don't cope well with complexity.

What's on DV?

Mother's got a new DVD recorder. That's the short version. But I also wrote an ever so slightly longer version. Here it is.

Sometimes I think I live in a very strange family of obsessives. Well, in this post, judge for yourself, and at the same time, learn a little about the technology you probably use all the time.

If you want to build up your own collection of digital videos recorded from cable and television, you've got basically two options - MPEG2 and MPEG4.

These are two related file formats developed by, amazingly, the MPEG - Motion Picture Experts Group - and each has it's advantages and disadvantages.

There is, by the way, no MPEG3, to avoid confusion with the MP3 sound format, though there was (and is) the outdated MPEG1 format.

Now, MPEG2 is the kind of encoding for video and audio used on DVDs (where, for some reason, it's called VOB), and on the TiVo system. It's high quality, playable on all DVD machines, and nearly impossible to edit or change once recorded.

This means, if you've recorded an episode of a TV show with five minutes other stuff either end and three advert breaks, you're stuck with all the stuff you don't want. And seeing as a typical episode without ad breaks is fourty two minutes, that means about one half of what you've recorded is annoying junk that just takes up space on your DVD or hard disk.

MPEG4, on the other hand, can be edited. It also gives much smaller files for the same picture quality, and is much more configurable in terms of file size and quality of both picture and sound.

MPEG2 uses the MP2 sound format (or occasionally WAV). MPEG4 can use whatever sound format you like, though it's most usual to use MP3, which is a more advanced version of MP2.

If you download shows and movies from the net, they will almost certainly be in MPEG4 - probably the subtype called DivX.

Unfortunately, only a few DVD players can play MPEG4 files, though it's easy to set up your computer to do it.

DVD (MPEG2) recorders are now cheaply available, much as VCRs once were, and recordable DVDs are trivially cheap. There are a very few commercially available MPEG4 recorders around, but almost certainly you'll have to record them using a computer and burn the result to CDR or DVDR, and that computer may wind up being dedicated to doing just that.

So you have a choice. MPEG2 is easily recordable straight to DVD, and is playable on any DVD player, but is rather inflexible about file size, and there's (effectively) no way to cut out the stuff you don't want.

MPEG4 is very flexible, and you make a big saving on file size just by editing out the junk, but you probably can't play it on your DVD machine, and you have to go through the rigmarole or recording to computer and burning to disc.

Over the last half decade or so, me and mother have collected hundreds (something over one thousand) of DVDRs, each containing between three and six films, documentaries, concerts and TV show episodes, all in MPEG4.

Which means on the one hand, we have a vast choice of good stuff to watch when we want. And on the other hand, we spend far too much time editing, burning and cataloging the stuff.

For a few months I did the same thing with DAB radio. But it all just took up too much time.

So, in a bid to get our lives back, we've got a DVD recorder. Works just like an old fashioned VCR, with all the limitations and simplicity that implies.

So now mother can return to studying for her fourth (or is it fifth?) degree, this time in music theory. I can get around to my own music, and the writing and messing around with computers that's got squeezed out of the timetable. And we can just fast forward through the ad breaks.

Small Beer

I'm told I should stop drinking spirits in pubs, because (a) it's expensive, (b) they get me rather drunk, and (c) they're full of calories. So I should drunk beer or wine instead.

Pub wine is (a) expensive and (b) vinegar. Beer divides into an incomprehensible array of subtypes, according to whether it's light or dark, made with barley, wheat, rye or corn, fermented with wild or cultivated yeast, flavoured with hops or fruit, bubbled through with nitrogen or not, filtered or pasteurised or not, and a load of other considerations.

There's the overlapping categories of bitter, mild, stout, barleywine, saison, lambic and many more. There's also "Real Ales", which are unfiltered, unpasteurised, and the consistency of porridge.

However, half the beer in the world is larger, which combines the colour of cat urine with the social sophistication of cat urine and the flavour of cat urine.

So, last night I was persuaded to try a pint of Kronenberg beer. It was a bit like drinking pulverised stale bread. I managed half a glass. The handsome barman advised me against trying the Fosters beer, on account of it being exactly the same, only weaker.

So I tried Guinness with blackcurrant. I was surprised at it being quite pleasant, but after the first third of a glass it became the liquid equivalent of trying to eat six dry crackers in a row.

There is a theory that, if you don't want to drink too much in a pub, you should order something you don't like much. But there is another theory that the whole point of going into a public house is to drink too much, enjoy it, and tell the barman how handsome he is. Which I think I'll go back to doing.

Or try cider.

My telephone is my alarm clock. It wakes me up whenever someone needs my help in something computer related.

Today my morning call was from Stephen P, whose graduation film project was six hours from the final deadline, and had gone pear shaped.

The sound was all wrong, and the editing needed to be redone, and half the audio files wouldn't read, and he hadn't slept for two days, and his computer was a load of rubbish.

Between us we got it done ten minutes before the deadline. I think the university should pay me a retainer for the students I help pass courses.

C's going back to college - studying to be a holiday rep/tour guide. On the one hand, it's a great idea because he'll get to see all the wild and exotic places he loves. On the other, he'll have to drag around a coachload of boozy morons to do it.

No, I'm pleased for him.

In the evening there was a debate on the causes - and possible solutions - to climate change. There were four speakers, who laid out their positions.

Speaker 1: The apparently insane and destructive actions of governments and corporations makes sense if you understand the market system. Remove the market and you remove the actions.

Speaker 2: Ordinary people are to blame for being greedy. There needs to be a global change in the way people think, a rejection of consumerism and an embrace of dignified poverty.

Speaker 3: Environmentally aware people need to get involved in party politics, to pressure governments to rein in the corporations that control them.

Speaker 4: You can't trust any politician. The human race must return to living off the land in small villages.

There followed a somewhat unenlightening debate between various camps with half-formed ideas.

Someone said the solution was to drop out of all political activity, because all politics is corrupt. Another came out with the old chestnut about human nature being unchangably greedy - except when it wasn't. And there was much talk about somehow creating a spiritual awakening (whatever that means) in the human race.

My own small contribution ran like this:
You want to persuade humanity to wear a hairshirt to protect its future. There are roughly 6.6 billion humans on the planet, and lets say half of these are in such poverty that they can't make sacrifices.

Now lets say you conduct the most massively successful publicity campaign the world has ever seen, and persuade 10% of the target audience to reduce their carbon footprint by 10% each.

In this utopian scenario you've persuaded 33 million people to make fairly small sacrifices in their lives. Congratulations, you've reduced the global footprint by 1%. To make a difference you might need 80%.

There was also the small unmentioned issue that a group of 40ish had shrunk to around 20 because of internal power struggles, and these were the people trying to save the planet by telling poor people to make themselves poorer.

I had a long discussion with Speaker 4 afterwards. He said mankind needs to return to natural practices - mud huts are more natural than houses, eating apples is more natural than eating apple pies, and hand pulled ploughs are more natural than horse drawn ones. Though ploughs are unnatural anyway.

I spent 20 minutes trying to get him to define "natural" in this context. He couldn't. I suggested this might mean his ideas were flawed. He didn't see why.

Why are most good people mad?

Things to See, People to Do

Now that I'm no longer spending six hours a day snorting derision at powerpoint presentations, I've got time to do useful things... building a computer out of spare parts for a friend. It's four times faster and twice as reliable as the old one. And refuses point blank to connect to the modem. After three telephonic consulations with NTL in India, they recommend...a new modem.

Someday soon I hope to have time to rebuild my own computer. being stood up three times in as many days by a man who says "buy you a beer" to mean "complain about my girlfriend", and "catch up" to mean "give you a blowjob". Maybe I should be the one standing him up? going to a public debate on Iraq and Islamophobia.

Special Branch made sure we all knew they were going to be there, just in case peace campaigners declared war on America The Great Satan. They weren't actually there of course.

The stewards tried to break up the meeting by quoting regulations. They left when someone told them what the regulations actually were.

The main speaker cancelled at the last moment - either because Special Branch called him too, or just because he generally does.

There was the inevitable "intervention" by an inept (though rather cute) rightwinger, who spoke in a stream of unconnected cliches - "What's the price of freedom?", "progress of democracy", "How many more 7/7s?" etc.

There was vague talk of a campaign of civil disobedience - which would require thousands of confident citizens unafraid to go to jail to make a point, whereas what we have is hundreds of people scared they'll go to jail anyway for no reason.

There was also talk of combatting police racism by getting more non-white officers in the force. This is a little like trying to tame hornets by releasing fruitflies into the swarm. letting the internet know what I thought of the latest episode of Dr Who,

...pure runaround. Almost no plot, not much characterisation, just a series of arbitrary problems stacked on top of each other with the clock ticking.

...*I am not interested in people [on TV] being emotional at me*. I don't find it cathartic, clensing or spiritually truthful and I don't think it reveals anything useful about the human condition. And even if it does I don't want it on Saturday evening when I'm supposed to be enjoying myself in front of TV aimed at people 30 years younger than me.


I suspect the thinking behind homeopathy originally looked something like this:

1) Arsenic (for instance) kills in large doses.
2) In smaller doses it doesn't kill, but induces illness. So the "bad" effect is lessened by dilution.
3) In smaller doses still, it can be a treatment for angina, and indeed impotence. So now the bad has flipped over into the good.
4) So therefore if you continue to dilute the doses, the good effects will be further magnified.

(3) is obviously an error, though an understandable one. (4) is a second, seperate error.

One issue is that there are actually two incompatible versions of homeopathy. One uses thinking like that above. The other, which I think derives from misunderstanding the first, and is in a distinct minority, is that the effect of the substance is not reversed but simply increased by dilution.

The first will use caffine as a sedative. The second will use a very small dose of a a strong sedative. The second is the one "verified" by the Bienvenu's "Memory of Water" experiments.

However, I think the situation is even more complicated than that, because a lot of fans of homeopathy have such a vague understanding of its principles that they can flip-flop between the two different homeopathies.

Ann Coulter's eulogy on the late great Reverend Jerry Falwell,

Which is the simpler explanation? Are people like Coulter, Phelps and Robertson really exactly as deranged and hypocritical as they appear, or are they deep-cover agents putting themselves through hell to slowly undermine groups almost as demented as they're pretending to be?

I think Coulter started out as a genuine right-winger who occasionally said shocking things to get attention, and has drifted into being an automatic contrarian.

and how to write bad popular science books.

* Use exclamation marks at least three times on each page.
"...and that's a lot of nothing!"
" holes fulful all the requirements for being the location of hell!"
"...a billion billion billion billion billion billion billion times! Wow!"

* Use units that sound like they give you a feel of scale, but don't.
"...enough water to fill three hundred football stadiums."
"If the earth were the size of the solar system, a string would be the size of a tree."
"A million years - that's ten thousand grandfather's lifetimes."

* Try to make scientists interesting by making their lives sensational.

"Alan Turing (who may or may not have committed suicide by swallowing cyanide because he couldn't live with being gay)..."
"Einstein fled Hitler's Germany as a Jew to the safety of tolerant America."
"Kurt Godel starved himself to death because he became paranoid that everyone was trying to poison him. However, several years before this..."
"The great mathematician Richard Montague, shortly before his violent death at the hands of a crazed prostitute..." getting back to writing.

Murder Notes 2

A few more ideas for murder mysteries...

A man gives himself a series of alibis, by confessing to a priest that he meeting a woman for an adulterous affair at the time of each crime. He knows the priest has broken confessional secrecy before, and will do so again.

Three murders, all well reported in the press, all with the same MO. One suspect can be tied to the first and third, but has a cast iron alibi for the second. The second murder was by a copycat killer.

A spate of poisonings lands a series of people in hospital, where they die. The people are unconnected apart from two, who are members of the same family. The symptoms of all before reaching hospital are slightly different from each other. There are various toxins found in each bloodstream after death, but one is common to all.

The spate was partly a statistical fluke. The two family members were poisoned by the same person, who just wanted to hurry up his inheritance. The other poisonings were just a coincidental cluster of food poisonings, and the family killings would have been noticed immidiately if they hadn't been hidden by the cluster.

One of the doctors at the hospital is the real killer, administering the common poison to patients when they arrived in his ward. He chose patients with low life expectancy to hide what he was doing. His motive: he just enjoyed it.

It's been said that there are only four basic motives for murder - love, lust, loathing and lucre. But I think there are many others that don't fit into these categories.

What about shame? A mother kills a journalist who is writing a biography of her pop-star son, to prevent her finding out about the son's shameful secret - that at school he got a girl pregnant and forced her to have an abortion, after which she suicided.

The mother pieced together what had happened from clues about her son's behavior and what she'd heard about the girl. But the mother had worked it out wrong - she was protecting a secret that existed in her own imagination.

What about murder as a trial run for another murder - one that never takes place? Or is botched?

Murder as ceremony? As initiation into a sect? A secret society of super-powerful businessmen, and for someone to join they need to prove their ruthlessness and determination by killing a stranger.

Murder as experiment? Think of Alfred Hitchcock's film "Rope", where the maguffin is the protagonists comitting a murder as an intellectual exercise, just to see if they can do it.

A wants to kill B. B and C are sisters who resemble each other and often visit each other's homes. A writes a series of anonymous hate letters to C, pretending to be an unbalanced stalker, vacillating between love and hate for her.

A shoots B from a distance, making it appear the stalker has attempted to shoot C, but got the wrong sister.

There are plenty of mysteries where the killer covers their tracks by advancing and retarding clocks. How about one where they get caught because their own watch was slow?

"Strangers on a Train" was about two people who met once by chance and swapped murders. How about a group who are all members of a larger association - say 5 members of a sports club of 30 - who draw lots to each perform one murder for one of the others.

The trail of clues for each killing would lead back to the sports club, but the obvious suspect for each would have an alibi (such as being at the club at the time), and there are 29 others possible suspects.

For further obfuscation, one of the murders was of the wrong victim - mistaken identity.

The police will quickly cotten on to the link between a spate of murders and the sports club. But they might be confused by a staged failed murder of one of the group of five.

Citizen Pain

Yesterday, I was gifted with not one but three powerpoint presentations in a row. Here is a summary of the wisdom they blessed me with:

(1) "Why Learning Is Important"

* "Learning takes effort."

* "Your brain is not a sponge."

* You've got to "Future proof yourself."

* "Have a go - what have you got to lose?"

(2) "The Importance of Teamwork."

* A business is a bit like a football team.

* We don't talk about bosses, middle managers and workers anymore. Instead we have:

Activators (who do what the bosses used to do - decide on a course of action and order everyone else to follow it)
Communicators (who do what middle managers used to do - keep everyone in line), and
Problem Solvers (who do what the workers used to do - the actual work).

* You've got to believe in the project.

* "There is no I in Team."

(3) "Personal Motivation" (or How not to get Depressed When Things are Shit)

* "Motivation is an emotion."

* "Negativity is an emotion."

* One reason to lose motivation is when "financial incentive is withdrawn".

* "Motivation comes from within."

* Some people are born with an "innately high level of motivation" - you have to become one of them.

* If you get depressed, it's your fault for not telling yourself enough comforting lies.

There was one high point though. When the presenter, speaking in a dull self hating monotone, said in a voice without a trace of humour "You've got to have a sense of humour, or you'll end up killing someone."

And today...another two powerpoint presentations! One on Heath and Safety, and one on Discrimination and Diversity.

To summarise the first: If you fall out a window marked "Do Not Open", it's your fault.

And the second: Don't talk about anything except work at the workplace, and keep at least two feet away from everyone.

The trouble with trying to regulate the offence given over issues like race is, there's no way to know how much offence will be taken in advance. Oh, and it's also impossible to define race.

The trouble with outlawing harassment is, you don't know what forms of contact will be interpreted as harassment by which people in what circumstances until after it's happened. Oh, and claiming harassment can be used to harass.

The trouble with embracing diversity while preaching equality can't. You end up telling people they can be as diverse as they like, so long as they don't show it, and they're all equally valid because they're all equally anodyne.

I think the real issue though, is that the public are being threatened with fines and prison sentences to make them behave like any decent human being. As though they were children and the sin could be beaten out of them.

The government is trying to define what it means for people to get along with each other, as though getting along could be codified in an algorithm applicable to all occasions. The fact that the algorithm is unusably vague is inevitable, and that it's self contradictory shows why the whole project is misguided,

There's also the small issue that hate crimes are highly punished by a system which encourages them every day on television, but that's a different irony.

For what it's worth:

I won't make friends with you just because you're jewish, but I'll argue with anyone who bullys you for it, and with you if you bully someone else.

If you tell me an off-colour joke, I might respond with an even worse one.

And if you're happily heterosexual man I might flirt with you, and expect you to be grown up enough to understand how it's meant.

Remote Viewing

Every few months the British media spotlights a missing schoolgirl. The younger and blonder the better, her photo appears constantly next to updates on the police search - even if the update is that the police are still searching.

Everyone knows she's almost certainly dead on the first day, but there's an unwritten rule forbidding anyone to say it.

Exactly like soap-opera addicts who can see the plot twist coming but wait on tenterhooks for it anyway, the viewing public follow the unfolding drama day-by-day. It's a familiar formula now, of parents reading prepared statements at press conferences, high ranking police officers appealing for leads while talking vaguely about already having promising ones, and journalists conducing pointless interviews with anyone who knew the victim.

There's a constant tone adopted across the media of the entire nation being united in grief and desperately hoping against hope that one ordinary family will resume their unnewsworthy lives.

Other unwritten rules are now firmly in place. The police obviously suspect the parents first of all, but the television never does - and if it turns out the parents are guilty, it's presented as a shocking bolt from the blue. Dark hints are dropped that the girl was kidnapped for sexual purposes, but the possibility is made more scary by being only implicit.

Ten days ago, three year old Madeleine McCann went missing in the Algarve. Little more than an hour later, the Praia da Luz holiday resort was swarming with camera crews, and I ate my breakfast watching police and reporters run around it.

By evening, there was an unidentified "strong lead", which was never mentioned again.

On the third day, the BBC News channel spent 45 minutes broadcasting live pictures of an empty back garden, while a voiceover informed us that the parents were due to make a statement soon. When it came, the father thanked the police, reiterated that he and his wife were devastated, and again begged for the public to come forward with information.

Yesterday, the police again admitted they had no leads, this time blaming the public for giving them too much information to process. A journalist tentatively asked whether it was worth spending more that two million pounds on a completely blind search, and received the weak (though true) response that all we can do is keep looking.

Today, it's headline news that the parents prayed in a Portuguese church for their daughter's return. Various celebrities have between them offered GBP1.5M for information leading to the Madeleine's discovery - interesting that they're now talking about "discovery" instead of "return".

And so the latest iteration of a much told story is nearing it's end. The cycle generally lasts about two weeks, wringing every last drop of wracking stage managed emotion from the audience - before winding down into the despondent attitude that nothing more can be done, as the story gets stale.

It goes through chapters of sympathy for the parents, displaced maternal instinct for the child, rage at the presumed abductor, a strange desire for revenge on people "like him", plucky but foolish hope against the odds, and finally the sense that your world has just caved in and you're falling with it.

It's like an overblown classical Tragedy, experienced at one remove through doom laden TV reports and hysterical newspaper columns. But unlike classical tragedy, the experience isn't cathartic.

It's...goulish, perhaps because somehow the murder of a child and the breaking of a family gets lost in all the noise.

Update: On the eleventh day, there were headlines screaming blame at the British police for not having found a single suspect.

On the twelfth day, the police tried to repair their damaged public image by finding a suspect. They chose the man who's been working with them as translator in liaising with the Portuguese police for the last twelve days. Then they let him go because they had absolutely no evidence against him. Which does rather beg the question why they arrested him in the first place, but we know the answer to that one.

The parents have chosen to believe their daughter is alive and being well treated. Well, if it helps them deal with their loss, so be it.

Take Comfort

The most notable event in my life on Friday happened when I walked into a shop. It looked like this:

Kapitano: Good Afternoon. I'm not a customer - I'm on one of those pointless government schemes for the unemployed...

Cashier: Um.

Kapitano: ...that requires me to walk into shops and ask them if they've got any job vacancies...

Cashier: Ah.

Kapitano: ...and collect evidence that I've done it. So, do you have any vacancies?

Cashier: No, I'm afraid not.

Kapitano: Fine. Do you have any application forms handy for when you do have vacancies?

Cashier: No, sorry. We do it all online.

Kapitano: No problem. Do you have any business cards, compliments slips or anything I can use to prove I was here?

Cashier: I don't think so.

Kapitano: [to queue of customers]: Sorry about this. [to cashier] Then can I have the name of the store manager and the telephone number of this shop?

Cashier: Um, I think I've forgotten it. Hang on.

[Cashier looks in catalogue. Finds number]

Cashier: Do you want me to write it down for you?

Kapitano: Oh yes please, that would be lovely.

[Cashier writes on receipt paper and hands it over]

Kapitano: Thank you very much.

I had similar conversations in a pub, two council offices and two admin buildings of the university. Except they wouldn't give me anything on paper at all.

It seems the way they work is this: You can't just walk in and ask for an application for anymore. Now, you find their website and email your CV to their Human Resources department, who send you an application form in the post, which you copy the CV you've already sent onto and post back to them. If they respond, it's with another letter.

Truly, the internet has changed everything.

The pope (Benzedrine the Sixteenth) has urged all Brazilian Catholics to abstain from nonmarital sex, and simultaneously avoid abortion.

By the same reasoning, you are expressly forbidden to go out in the rain, and furthermore you must not wear a raincoat when you do.

The secular world seems obsessed with talking about having sex, and the religious world with talking about not having it. It makes me wish I'd completed my seminary training. That way, as an atheist priest (of which there are many) I could talk about sex all the time.

Actually there is one other thing the churches are obsessing over. Everything, and where it comes from.

On May 5th, the ABC channel hosted a debate between creationist Ray Comfort and a group of atheists called the Rational Response Squad.

Comfort claimed he could conclusively prove the existence of the christian god in thirteen minutes, using only science and without referring to the bible.

You can watch the debate on the ABC site, but here's a summary of Comfort's three arguments:

* Design. The universe has a structure, therefore it was designed, therefore there was a designer, therefore that designer was the christian god.

* Conscience. Everyone, everywhere in the world has identical notions of what is right and wrong, regardless of culture or circumstance. The reason some people don't is they don't read the ten commandments.

* Conversion. Some people have a religious experience and convert to christianity.

So, how many basic errors of reasoning did you count? You may also have noticed he broke his promise to use science and not mention the bible. But what else could we expect from a man who uses the shape of bananas to disprove evolution?

I've participated in an interesting discussion about the debate here. It's interesting because there's atheists and intelligent christians on one side, and the quite staggeringly dumb christians (the majority) on the other.

I often think debates about creationism and god are fought in entirely the wrong way. If we want to win over the stupid, then we need to find arguments for evolution and atheism that are based on fear and authority.

Something like "Pat Robertson, Jessie Helms, Jerry Fallwell, Ted Haggard, John Paulk. They're christians."

I Do Not Exist

Two more days, and if I'm not careful the course may turn out to be useful after all.

I suppose, by the law of averages, there must be a few government sponsored schemes that aren't dismal failures or outright frauds. In the same way there must be a few lottery winners, good pop songs and honest politicians. But it's still unbelievable when it happens.

Did you know, that to get into most decent jobs, you need at least two valid identity documents, to prove you are who you say you are? Exactly why you should need to do this is a little unclear, so it's probably something to do with muslims.

These are the commonly accepted forms of ID:
* Passport (any nationality)
* Birth Certificate (full version)
* Driving Licence (not the photocard, the whole document)
* EU ID card (costs GBP350, and serves no purpose in Britain)
* Forces ID card
* Firearms Licence (hmmm)

Have you got two of these? I don't.

When it comes time to renew my passport, I will have to take a "citizenship test" in addition to the standard paperwork. This involves traveling to my nearest test centre - most likely in London - and answering three hundred questions to ascertain how well I've assimilated British culture.

Passing or failing the test has no impact on getting the passport - rather, it's for the purported future national ID card, which is supposed to prevent "terrorism" using the long discredited physiometric data system. How it might do this has yet to be worked out.

There's also the small issues that (a) there's no such thing as British culture, in the same way there's no such thing as French hairstyle and (b) the MPs who supported the legislation failed their own test. And it would be hideously expensive to implement and take decades.

Oh, and I pay GBP126 to take the test. Plus around a hundred pounds for the mandatory card if/when it eventually appears.

Tony Blair announced his resignation today. There was much discussion on TV about his "legacy" - the fucked up occupation of Iraq, the fucked up occupation of Afghanistan, the fucked up health service, the fucked up education system, the fucked up transport networks etc. But the ID cards fuckup didn't get a look in. Too much competition I suppose.

Today, I learned all about Key Skills. There's six of them.

* Adaptability (acquiring skills, coping with change, dealing with emergencies, but mostly doing things that aren't in your contract)
* Team Playing (co-operating with co-workers, i.e obeying the boss)
* Communication (speaking without stuttering, presenting without baffling, objecting without offending and persuading without shouting)
* Being Able to Think Outside The Box (what we used to call "creativity")
* Initiative (working as though you're being supervised when you're not)
* Punctuality (working to a timetable, specifically an ever contracting one)

It always amazes me that psychologists can spend years taking such abstract but useful concepts as "not being bloody stupid", "not behaving like a total arsehole" and "not being a blithering incompetent", breaking them down and resynthesising them into equally abstract but completely useless categories, before selling them to big business as a way to make workers work harder.

It's like taking a prepared meal and pulverising it down to its molecules, then arranging them in groups on a plate according to which ones rhyme, and calling it a new diet plan.

Right. I now have to compose a CV for myself. I've been given a list of thirty Power Words to shoehorn into as many sentences as possible.

I'm told it impresses people who use the term "Human Resources" without irony.

My Public Need Me

Sometimes I think there's no point planning ahead. Because whatever your plans are at 9am, circumstances will have transformed them completely by midday. Twice.

I was going to spend Monday researching how to optimise Windows XP for audio processing. Then I got a panicked call from one of the students I'm helping make short films.

The raw footage I shot plays perfectly on Windows Media Player, but the super-duper GBP7000 professional edit suite doesn't recognise the MPG format. So can I think of something please. Because the film has to be finished by tomorrow at the latest.

So I spent the morning improvising a tutorial on Adobe Premiere, and the afternoon improvising one on Audition for the other student.

Tuesday was the first day of the pointless jobseeker course, which was on balance slightly less pointless than expected.

The first three hours were spent filling out forms and being told all the things the law requires we be told - health and safety, grievance and disciplinary procedures, our rights and obligations.

Then a break for lunch, which involved being pushed out of the building and given three pounds to spend in the shops. I had a kid's portion of fish and chips. And then spent the remaining 50 minutes pretending to browse the charity shops.

Then in the afternoon another three hours, being told about the dire employment situation. By a man almost incapable of varying his voice or giving examples.

However, I did learn a few facts.

* The national average for unemployment is 4.4%, though Of course that's really just those people on the official unemployment register, as opposed to those who have no job but are classified differently, and those on these courses.

Most of the county is actually below the 4.4% mark - but my home town isn't. We've got 6.2%. And given that most of the major employers are relocating out of Portsmouth, it's going to get higher.

* The cost of living in Portsmouth is 105% of the national average. And the average wage is 85% of the national. So in effect we're about one fifth worse off than Mr Average.

* 80% of employers now expect an absolute minimum of a "Level 2" formal education in a relevant area from each employee. That's roughly two A-Levels, or one HNC, one NVQ 2, or one third of a degree.

I'm a bit dubious about these equivalences, but it's true that to do even so-called "elementary level" work - truck driving, building work, catering etc - you need qualifications in IT, health and safety, literacy and numeracy. On top of those relevant to the job.

Oh, and at least two years experience as well, which you presumably get by lying to the the employer. Tell him you've got the experience, and two years later you do.

So, how do you get these qualifications? Well, you pay to attend a one or two year course (or two of them), and collect a piece of paper at the end. How do you pay, without a job? Well...that's not their problem.

And anyway, access to and funding of higher education is shrinking faster than the ice caps. Unless you want to learn aromatherapy or cake icing, Those courses are flourishing.

But let's say you get the formal qualifications, and the job. Whilst in the job, you're expected to take more courses, in your own time, at your own expense. In effect to train yourself so the employer doesn't have to.

But not to worry, because on Tuesday we learn how to lay out a CV.

There was a call when I got home. Outlook Express has just lost several thousand emails. Can I get them back please.

Preach It

I was going to stop eating biscuits and start exercising today. But yesterday I injured my knee and ate something that doesn't like my stomach. So on the one hand I can't exercise, but on the other I can't eat anything because I'll just throw it up.

You can see how some people think their lives are run by an invisible power with the sense of humour of a five year old.

Speaking of which, I've found myself thinking about God recently. I'm working on the outlines of a story about murder in a small religious cult, and posting about atheism on one of the more sensible religious discussion blogs.

I'll post quotes from the latter if/when it develops some more. In the meantime, here's some notes from the former. Imagine these words coming from one of the characters, a rather unconventional charismatic preacher:

There are those who believe that by giving the people what they want, they are doing what must be done.

There are those who believe that by doing what must be done, they are making the people happy.

And there are those who believe that by making the people happy, they are giving the people what they want.

But these are very different things.

If god started to answer our prayers, we would soon cease praying. Praying is a way of hoping for what we know we will never have.

They say man is defined by language, or work, or the use of tools. They say man is the only creature to think in words, or work the land, or invent technology. I say man is defined by his capacity for hope. I say he is the only creature to live for the future.

The future barely ever comes of course, and almost all hope is futile. If the future does come, or our prayers are answered, we instantly find something new to pray for.

Revelations are meant to be experienced by lunatics, quoted by the holy, and revered by the believers. They're not meant to be understood by anyone.

We don't care about the content of the revelation, only that there is one. We're supposed to be reassured by its existence, not informed by its data.

Every community needs its scapegoats, every religion needs its heretics, and every man needs his enemies.

If we weren't drawn together by our shared hatred, do you think our love for each other would be enough? If all we had was our love, we'd soon find reasons to hate each other.

It could be the wealthy in their semi-detatched homes with tripple glazing, or the poor in their cracked towerblocks which are only a mile away but which we've never seen. It could be the young, the mad, the clever,

The beautiful who have nothing but their beauty, or the ugly who would trade everything they have to have beauty. The good and kind who we despise for being better than us, or the spiteful and cruel who we despise for doing what we wish we could do.

the foreign with their strange food which they cook for us in the evenings, the immigrant who steals the job we don't want for wages we wouldn't accept. The criminals who scare us, or the police who treat us like criminals.

We live among these people but they are invisible to us. If they were not invisible we could not hate them as we do. Or if we love them, we couldn't love them as we do.

At the end of every religious quest there is an empty box. The box that the holy books say contains the greatest secret, the deepest revelation, the complete truth.

We open the box and see there's nothing there, but instead of blaming god or the scriptures for deceiving us, we blame ourselves for being too blind to see the contents. We tell ourselves we have not yet reached enlightenment, and are therefore not worthy to receive enlightenment.

If we see through this, we tell ourselves the real purpose of the quest was the journey itself, that the difficulties and waylays on the path are the true source of enlightenment, that the box is not empty after all because we fill it ourselves with each step. Indeed, the box is irrelevent, merely an excuse.

But we can't tell anyone what we've learned on the journey, because for anyone to understand it, they'd have to take the journey themselves. And even if they do, they've taken their journey, not ours, and receieved their enlightenment, not ours, so we can't even compare our vision of god with theirs.

Some even say your whole life is the quest, so when you've reached the end of your life, you'll know how you should have spent it.

It's perfect. The box stays empty, the truth stays hidden, the mystery stays intact, priests stay in control and the pligrims keep coming.


It's election day! And what story is on the front page of the local rag? Is it one of these?

* Conservatives Unveil Policy On Something
* "I Hate Blair Too So Vote For Me" says Labour Man
* Why LibDems Can't Be Trusted
* "I'm Gay" Says Conservative Hero
* Third Cousin Of Labour Candidate Is War Hero
* Liberal In Baby Eating Fiasco
* Conservative Wants To Be First Woman On Neptune. Exclusive!
* My Year Of Labour Hell
* Liberal Democrat Denies Al Quaida Paedophile Connections

No. It's "Tragedy of Crash Pilot: Flier In Chelsea Tycoon Helicopter Horror Killed On His Mother's Birthday". Below a special offer of "Free Garden Flowers".

The last local election, I played scrutineer for a few hours and got to chat with a Labour councillor - a real idiot whose casual conversation consisted entirely of cliches from press conferences.

I hung around to see the regional results announced and talked with the mayor - a pleasantly gossipy lady who told me she couldn't possibly comment on her colleagues. Before saying exactly what she thought of them.

She was messily "deposed" from the Conservative party months later, leaving that particular bunch of tweedy pensioners without a single public representative anyone could relate to.

This year, I spent election night reading potted biographies of famous friends of Dorothy, watching my favourite TV show and listening to trance through my new USB speakers

Since when did loudspeakers look like moonbase props from 1970s sci-fi?

Meeting C tomorrow, so no late night tonight. I'm a great insomniac but I've found something to lull me to sleep - the bible. Another web radio channel, this one reading the holy scriptures to me in a demented unending loop. The reader obviously has no idea what large sections of it mean - it's just a faintly dadaist hypnotic drone of strange sentences.

I once studied with a theology student who taught himself the gospels by recording himself reading them, then going to sleep with them looping under his pillow. I've no idea whether it worked. He used to come to me when he needed philosophical terms explaining.

It's the Book of Ezekiel tonight, so if I dream about laying down with the uncircumcised and going down to the pit with my sword, you'll know why.

Late news: We beat the Greens, yay! Coming 4th with about the same votecount as last time.

Murder Notes

A maid working in a hotel recognises one of the guests as a businessman who got her fired from her dream job some years before. The hotel, quite a high class place, provides toothpaste, toothbrushes, towels, soap etc in each suite's bathroom.

She takes the toothbrushes from the businessman's room, soaks the bristles in a poison, and replaces the brushes. The plan is for the businessman and his family to brush their teeth in the morning, and several hours later to be dead. The maid would replace the toothbrushes with ordinary ones in the course of her normal duties, disposing of the poisoned brushes, hopefully leaving no clue as to how the poison got into their bodies.

However, the businessman gets an unexpected urgent call, and jets off with his family the night before they were supposed to use the toothbrushes.

Another family arrive, but due to booking mix-up, their rooms are unavailable. They are given the businessman's room for the night, and use the toothbrushes in the morning. The maid didn't see the businessman leave, and didn't know about the new family or the booking mix-up.

"If you're a detective, sooner or later you'll screw up and get the wrong man convicted. If you think it'll never happen to you, if you think you're too good to let it happen to you, you're in the wrong job. If you can't live with the possibility, don't do the job. If it doesn't bother you, go somewhere else.

You want to know when I got the wrong man? It was a simple case of a young girl who'd drowned in a swimming pool. It looked like a straightforward accidental death - she'd left most of her clothes by the poolside, dived in, got into difficulty and drowned.

But there was no towel with the clothes. Why would someone go swimming and not bring a towel? It had to be murder.

Her father couldn't account for where he was when she died, and he'd been warned about hitting her about before. So we brought him in, pressured him and he confessed.

Then we found he was miles away when his daughter died, in bed with his girlfriend. The daughter really had just forgotten to bring a towel.

But we couldn't let the man go. He'd hanged himself in his cell the night before."

The major clue in an investigation is what seems to be a diary kept by the killer. It details his thoughts about killing various people, including possible methods of killing and of avoiding detection.

The author of the diary is in fact the victim, who had been a fantasist, constantly imagining himself as murderer, plotting perfect crimes he was never going to commit. His own death was a coincidence.

Problem: A husband and wife are found dead in their home, Both have been poisoned by the last meal they shared. There is no way the food could have been accidentally poisoned.

There is a marked empty test tube on the floor, and another one, unmarked, in the husband's pocket. Forensics show they contained the poison. They have the husband's fingerprints on them. It looks like the husband put poison into the meal, and they both ate it. A suicide pact?

The couple had an estranged son, a chemist. He had access to the poison, but had no way to get it into the food. He was in another country for a full month before they died.

The son claims (and others verify) that his father had visited him at the lab some months earlier, looking for a reconciliation, but it didn't work out. Could the father have stolen some poison then?

Solution: The husband had approached the son, asking for help in killing his wife. He could hardly cook his wife a meal and then not eat himself, and if she died of poisoning and he was unscathed, he would be the obvious suspect.

But, what if she died of the poison, and he showed symptoms of poisoning but survived, as though someone had tried to kill them both? What if, after making sure his wife was dead, he called an ambulence for both of them, and his bloodstream and stomach contents showed traces of the poison? That would shift suspicion away from him, and he could dispose of the test tubes before the ambulence arrived.

So all he has to do is poison the food, ensure he and his wife both eat it, and make sure she eats more. As a precaution, he should also carry the antidote, in case he accidentally ingests too much.

But, instead of giving the husband one tube of poison and one (marked) of antidote, the son gives him two tubes of poison. So when the husband gets crippling cramp and thinks he's eaten too much, he takes the "antidote", and poisons himself more.

The unmarked tube is still in his pocket, and the last thing he does is drop the marked one.

A police detective investigating the death of a colleague is hampered by all the suspects being other members of CID. The police close ranks to protect their own - even when it's a murderer they're protecting, and even when they don't know which of their number they're protecting.

In the end, the detective finds the killer, but tells no one because he can't prove it. His superior tells him to drop the case - so as not to bring the name of the police into disrepute.

The hero gets the opportunity to kill the murderer undetectably. Would the investigator of that crime be similarly hampered?


Green issues are red hot. Sort of.

With two weeks to go before the local council elections, Portsmouth's green group last night organised a hustings for representatives of standing parties to present their environmental cases and credentials. Five parties thought it was important enough to send speakers, who found themselves addressing thirty.

Everyone knows the planet's in trouble, everyone knows something drastic has to be done right now, everyone knows politicians have to be involved, but no one wants to do anything drastic and no one wants to talk with politicians.

On the platform:

* Labour Guy. Most professional politicians have to adopt a schizoid approach to their party, loyally defending policies they reject, working for leaders who betray them, and presenting arguments they can see through.

This fellow was more honest than most about the tensions between the principles his party is (supposedly) based upon and the policies it actually follows. This was partly because he really was in a conflicted state, and partly because playing the reluctant advocate gave him an air of plausible deniability.

It's a neat trick - much as hollywood can continue to tell the same tired old stories by giving them a thin gloss of postmodern irony, so some politicians can continue to support their discredited party by loudly protesting that they don't really. A way of having your cake while pretending not to eat it.

* Green Guy. Less conflicted, more knowledgeable about both green issues and politics, and much more able to say one thing while meaning another. Your average slippery local councillor.

Unfortunately for him, drowning difficult questions in waffle and smearing opponents in falsely parenthetical remarks didn't work with this audience. Attacking leftwingers by characterising them as hardfaced stalinists only works when played to listeners ignorant of the real history, defocusing issues only works with unfocused people, and spouting cliches only works with people who think in cliches.

* Respect Guy. Began nervous, halting and earnest. By the end he cam across as clearly the most honest, straightforward and trustworthy speaker on the floor.

* Chair. You meet some interesting blends of psychological types in politics. In this case, a campaigner who tries to avoid conflict, a proselytising leader who doesn't want to stand out or dominate, and a climate scientist advocating economic reforms he knows won't solve the problems in the long term, in the hope they'll be stepping stones to major reforms that will.

* Tory Guy. A lame duck with nothing to say, gamely saying it to people he knows aren't listening. Like Labour Guy, he tried to play the "loyal but independent" role.

Also something of a twit. Twice he presented the slogan "Think global, act local" as though it were a fresh new idea liable to impress progressives. He thought it was invented by Woking Town Council.

* LibDem Guy. His spiel was "I'm just an ordinary fluffy liberal campaigning on social issues, who somehow fell into being a local councillor". It's odd how some professional politicians think they'll seem more trustworthy to the electorate if they present themselves as goofy amateurs. Or rather, it's odd how they're right to think this.

As for the debate itself, it ranged over transport issues (car culture, public transport funding, and why not everyone can convert their cars to run on chip fat), housing (enforcing building regulations, why the poor have ineffective double glazing, and how planning application procedures are a complete and utter blithering mess), and how if only the public were more educated they'd put more pressure on their politicians.

Then, as is traditional, the greens in the audience went home and the reds went down the pub - with Labour Guy in tow. Cue a continuation of the same debate, but this time honest and interesting.