Not Saussure

April 3, 2007

Skepticism and Pseudoscience

Filed under: junk science, scams — notsaussure @ 12:45 pm

Via The Art Of The Prank, a link to an exclusive video (lives only on that site, apparently, but is available for download as a podcast) in which

Skeptic Magazine founder Michael Shermer takes us on a hilarious romp through the strange claims we humans put forth as truth – from alien encounters to Virgin Mary sightings on pizza pies, to hidden messages revealed while playing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ backwards – and explains the evolutionary and cognitive basis for these lapses in reason…

Brief adverts at the beginning and the end, but the 17-odd minutes in between are highly entertaining. I particularly liked the special hi-tech dowsing rod, for which apparently at least one US school has paid $900, that enables teachers to dowse for marijuana in students’ lockers. Apparently it really works; if you open enough lockers you’ll find pot in some of them; the video makers apparently conducted tests under controlled conditions, with two sealed boxes, one containing pot and the other not. Spookily, the dowsing rod detected the one containing the pot 50% of the time.

The Art Of The Prank is a new, collective blog, appropriately started on April 1st, in which

you will find insights, information, news and discussions about pranks, hoaxes, culture jamming & reality hacking around the world – past, present and future – mainstream and counter culture. You are invited to contribute to its development. May your journey be filled with more than your expectations.

It was started by one Joey Skaggs who, according to his website,

has been called everything from the World’s Greatest Hoaxer to a royal pain in the ass. He’s been threatened, assaulted, summonsed, subpoenaed, arrested, deposed, dismissed, trivialized, maligned, even thanked and praised. In fact, Skaggs is America’s most notorious socio-political satirist, media activist, culture jammer, hoaxer, and dedicated proponent of independent thinking and media literacy.

In a similar vein, Boing Boing reports that Uri Geller has used his paranormal powers to get YouTube to remove a video of him being debunked by the American illusionist James Randi.   Fortunately, the video is available here.

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December 2, 2006

Is it too late to give the games back?

Filed under: scams — notsaussure @ 11:55 am

Or at least to sack Tessa Jowell?

November 7th

The cost of staging the events in six years is estimated to be at least £5 billion, compared with an original draft building costs of £2.3 billion.

But yesterday it emerged that the Treasury may not exempt the Olympic Development Authority (ODA), from VAT on construction.

The Tories and Liberal Democrats raised fears that this could add £1 billion to the bill.

To cries of disbelief from Tory MPs, Miss Jowell confirmed that the London bid “did not include VAT on construction of venues for 2012” as the nature of the organisation to deliver the games had not then been known.

But Miss Jowell made clear to MPs that in the event of more money being needed, there was an agreement that the extra cost had to be shared “between London and the Lottery”.

November 20th

One estimate yesterday quoted sources at the London Assembly suggesting that the final cost was now estimated at £8 billion. That would put London in with a good chance of overtaking the £9 billion Athens games as the most expensive in history.

Miss Jowell’s officials at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said yesterday that they “do not recognise” that estimate, published in The Observer.

NovembWer 23rd

The bill for the 2012 Olympics in London is set to soar past the £8 billion mark after the Government confessed to extra costs yesterday.

Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, admitted that the cost of building the Olympic Park alone had risen by £900 million to £3.3 billion.

To the astonishment of MPs, Miss Jowell said that included an extra £400 million for advisers CLM, whose job it is to keep costs down.

But the overall bill for the Games, originally put at £2.375 billion, is now widely expected to exceed £8 billion when extra regeneration, security, tax bills and contingency costs are included.

December 2nd

Tessa Jowell raised the prospect of tax rises to fund the Olympics yesterday as a senior insider gave a warning that the final bill would be £12 billion, more than four times the original estimate.

The Culture Secretary said the Government was looking at finding “other sources” of funding on top of the planned income from council taxpayers in London, the National Lottery and private investment.

She refused to rule out a fresh rise in council tax in the capital but conceded that there were “limits of tolerance” on how much of the burden could be carried by people in London

How on earth does something go more than 5 times over budget in the course of 18 months? Either they were grossly incompetent when they put together the bid or they were lying through their back teeth. Or both, of course.

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November 28, 2006

Why can’t people just — well, behave?

Filed under: Blair, hubris, Politics, scams — notsaussure @ 5:04 pm

Steven Poole on Blair’s plan for ‘a new social contract’

This almost comically bad idea shows that, in the decadent coda of his career, Blair has snapped utterly free of the notion that government exists at the sufferance of the people. Not a man ever to have taken seriously the idea that he is a public servant, he has now morphed decisively into a kind of giant inflatable Mary Poppins, minus the joie de vivre, floating untethered in the sky above us all. Tetchily nannyish, he says to himself: all the problems of British society could be solved if the people would just – well, behave.

More at: Comment is free: A raw deal

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November 27, 2006

Recycling is a gris-gris

Filed under: environment, scams — notsaussure @ 3:20 am

Penn & Teller explain why recycling, except for aluminium cans, is an expensive scam that damages the environment.

I knew both that recycling paper is a complete waste of time and resources and that recycling jobs (the heavy lifting, that is, not managing and promoting the schemes at the taxpayers’ expense) are a particularly unpleasant and unnecessary form of outdoor relief, but the material about landfill was new to me.

via [Geeks are Sexy]

November 25, 2006

Getting cross with BA; let Mammon have his say

Filed under: scams — notsaussure @ 10:43 pm

BA has, it appears,

paved the way last night for a climbdown over its refusal to allow a Christian worker to wear a cross over her uniform.

The airline bowed to the threat of a boycott by consumers and condemnation from politicians and churchmen by announcing a review of its uniform policy.

This, it appears,

was a blow for Willie Walsh, the airline’s chief executive, who had staked his authority on insisting that Nadia Eweida, a check-in worker, keep to its rules.

While defending the policy as consistent with industry standards and non-discriminatory, he signalled that the outcry had swayed BA.

“It has become clear that the policy will need to change in the light of the debate,” he said. One option would be to let staff wear religious symbols as lapel badges.

I’ve been watching this with mounting incredulity; the world and his spiritual advisor seem to have expressed their views on the matter, but no one seems to have thought to ask either BA’s customers or the company’s shareholders what, if anything, they think about all this. They’re the people who matter, surely?

I don’t know about anyone else, but when I fly, my main considerations are who can get me from A to B at my preferred times and how much it’s going to cost me (or whoever’s paying). Whether or not the check-in staff are wearing jewellery really doesn’t figure in my considerations; given the choice, I’d rather fly Lufthansa or Scandinavian than BA, not because their staff have smarter uniforms but because — at least when I was flying round Europe a lot — those airlines’ cabin crew were generally far more professional than their counterparts on BA and their pilots seemed less scared of landing in bad weather than did the BA lads.

That last one is maybe an unfair generalisation, but I’ve never forgiven them for making me miss a very important meeting in Moscow because the pilot decided to divert to Helsinki, where we spent the night, because of supposed bad weather at Sheremetyevo airport; when I finally got to Moscow, a day late, I discovered Lufthansa, Austrian and even the bloody French had managed to keep flying in and out all the previous day without difficulties. Anyway, where was I?

Ah, yes. If I were a BA shareholder, I can’t imagine I’d be particularly impressed by this circus, either. I can’t see how allowing staff to wear small items of jewellery particularly affects the company’s bottom line, but I can certainly see how all this bad publicity might, as can I see what a total waste of — doubtless pretty well-paid — management time it all is.

They’re ‘setting up a review’, for heaven’s sake! Committees are going to assemble and spend hours debating whether or not people may wear lapel badges or necklaces or whatever. Then, doubtless, consultants will be brought in, at enormous cost, and reports will be written, and someone’s bound to do PowerPoint presentation at some stage…

What on earth is wrong with saying something to the effect that, while staff are discouraged from so doing, they may wear small items of jewellery of sentimental value with the agreement of their supervisors, such agreement not to be unreasonably upheld? Problem solved.

Back to Mr Walsh

Mr Walsh said: “The review will examine ways in which our policy will be adapted to allow symbols of faith to be worn openly while remaining consistent with the brand and compliant with legislation.”

Aha! I see the problem; he’s been seduced by false prophets, in their contemporary manifestation of design and brand consultants.

BA have clearly been suckered into thinking that their market share somehow depends on the minutiae of the uniform or the letterhead — we’ve surely most of had experience of companies where some smooth-talking brand consultant has convinced the board that the fortunes of the enterprise stand or fall on their decision about some minor change to the typeface and colour of all corporate stationery, thus necessitating reprinting everything at enormous expense, and charged the company a small fortune for his advice.

Normally, such corporate extravagance is no more than an irritation to people who work there, who can usually think of better ways of spending the money (staff bonuses is favourite) but people can normally console themselves with the thought that it does no real harm and keeps senior management with time on its hands from doing anything more damaging to the company.

But Mr Walsh, God help us, seems to have convinced himself it all amounts to something; that people really are going to make their decision on whether to fly BA or Virgin based on the precise look of the uniforms.

I shudder to think how Mr Walsh and the rest of BA’s senior management would handle a real corporate crisis, given their performance in this circus. The Church of England was apparently muttering about disinvesting in BA — good to see the C of E’s money is managed so wisely — but presumably have now been mollified.

Had I investments in that airline, I’d certainly now be considering whether Mr Walsh and colleagues looked like safe people to whom to entrust my, or my clients’, money. Forget all this nonsense about committees to consider lapel badges and corporate images — like the good servants in the Parable of the Talents, concentrate on putting the investors’ money to good use rather than faffing around like this.

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November 23, 2006

Sale of honours inquiry … a diversion from The War on Terror

Filed under: scams — notsaussure @ 2:54 pm

As A Big Stick And A Small Carrot notes, Frank Field’s declaration that, yes, the government has been breaking the law, but they all do it and it’s time to move on, really is a bit off, though sadly unsurprising.

Mr Field, though, probably deserves some sort of gong for this bit of brass neck, particularly for managing to drag in the threat of terrorism:

”The amount of police effort being expended on this is ridiculous. These police officers would be doing a much better public service if they were put to work trying to stop innocent people being blown up by terrorists.

“The police investigation is utterly out of proportion. There was no complaint made to the police by a party leader. It was just a publicity stunt but the police bit and they should not have done so.”

Note to Mr Field; on being apprehended for any alleged offence, no matter how minor, do not, under any circumstances, say to the nice police officer, ‘What a waste of public money! Why don’t you go and catch some real criminals for a change?’ You will regret it if you do.

Matthew Parris got it almost right, I think, in The Times a couple of days ago;

Downing Street seems to have said in its heart: “Hey, let’s get real; newspaper editors and their readers are not kids; they know the score already; we need the dosh; why should we pussyfoot around?”

The British Establishment dislikes nothing more than those who blurt out loud what everybody knows but prefers to leave unsaid. It embarrasses people. Parvenus such as Mr Blair, who think to join the Establishment while elbowing aside the delicate web of hypocrisies, deferences and understandings that support it, infuriate the old guard.

“Hypocrisy”, said François, Duc de la Rochefoucauld, “is the homage vice pays to virtue.” On the sale of honours, the Establishment’s message to Downing Street is becoming clear: a little more hypocrisy, please, gentlemen.

Almost right. I think, though, the ZaNu-Labour fixers deserve more condemnation than that. Hypocrisy, at least in this context, imposes a degree of self-restraint on government; while we know that corners sometimes have to be cut and rules to be bent, this shower seem to have concluded that the corners and rules don’t apply any more. The fact that governments have, doubtless, always given honours for favours — a much less damaging way of rewarding them, after all, than the American custom of rewarding supporters with diplomatic posts, thus saddling them and us with the late Walter Annenberg as US Ambassador to The Court of St James for a while — is no excuse for a government so blatantly to break the law and express surprise when people object. It’s exactly the same cavalier attitude that lands successive Home Secretaries in conflict with judges who just don’t get it, thus also hampering efforts ‘to stop innocent people being blown up by terrorists’ when the Home Secretary wants to ignore the law of the land.

If you’re going to sell honours, then there’s a perfectly respectable precedent for doing it legally. Sell baronetcies, which were invented as a sort of hereditary knighthood by James I & IV for precisely that purpose. According to Wikipedia, James

offered the dignity to 200 gentlemen of good birth, with a clear estate of £1,000 a year, on condition that each one should pay a sum equivalent to three years’ pay to 30 soldiers at 8d per day per man into the King’s Exchequer. The idea came from the Earl of Salisbury, who averred: “The Honour will do the Gentry very little Harm,” while doing the Exchequer a lot of good.

So that’s £1 a day for three years, or £1,095. That’s, apparently, a surprisingly moderate £162,261.04, adjusted for RPI inflation. I don’t understand Army pay scales, but apparently a Private ‘Level 1’ earns £39.24 a day, so that’s £1,172.20 a day for 30 of them, or £1,289,034 for the three years. That’s possibly more realistic, though the fact you’d share a title and rank with Sir Mark Thatcher might be a bit of a drag on the market.

Certainly, I think no one could disagree with the proposition that paying the salaries of 30 squaddies for three years is a great deal more meritorious than funding the people who send them off, ill-equipped with cut-price ammo that jams, to fight in Afghanistan.

The last word on the subject, though, should go to the Countess of Mar, Madam Deputy Speaker in the Lords and holder of the oldest title in Scotland, quoted in The Times a few months ago:

“I think it is accepted among peers that some have bought their peerages,” she says casually, “although that has probably always been the case. Where it has gone to the dogs in the last 10 years is we have got a lot of people who have lost an election (to the Commons). Why should we get the dross?”

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November 20, 2006

Nigerian Scams

Filed under: Chatham House, scams — notsaussure @ 10:17 pm

Chatham House has turned its attention to Nigeria-Related Financial Crime And Its Links With Britain. The report contains some alarming statistics; while the best known scams are the Advanced Fee frauds, familiar to all of us from those emails from generous bods who want our assistance in smuggling vast amounts of money out of the country, these are apparently dwarfed by more traditional types of fraud involving forged cheques, postal orders and financial instruments, fake passports and the like. (more…)

September 28, 2006

“Give me sex, money and I’ll protect you from terrorists” — 8 years for manufactured terror threat

Filed under: scams, War on Terror — notsaussure @ 12:39 pm

A truly strange case this, with all sorts of resonances. Man tricks woman into believing she’s under threat from violent Islamic extremists from whom he can protect her, in return for sex and money.

The case was heard at my local court and, despite its truly bizarre nature, hasn’t been widely reported — I’m told it’s in a couple of the local papers, but they aren’t on-line.

Anyway, the freelancer who does the reports for our local courts very kindly gave me the copy he filed to blog about if I wished — he sees it as almost a parable for our times, too. Not sure what the copyright situation is here; OK to blog about, but if anyone from the commercial press wants to do anything with it, please drop me an email and I’ll forward it to my reporter chum. Here’s his story, anyway: (more…)

September 26, 2006

Sports and disability

Filed under: Blogroll, Books, scams — notsaussure @ 12:49 am

Mr Eugenides and Tim Worstall have both been having some justified fun with the news that ‘SCOTTISH sports clubs have been told to recruit disabled players and guarantee them a weekly game under a controversial equality drive ordered by ministers;’ Tim notes that ‘An unrelated news items tells us that Rangers have resigned Gazza’, while JuliaM asks, in Tim’s comments

What if your sport is so obscure & niche, there are no disabled people who want to play it? Do you cripple one of your existing players?

You can, of course, take the idea one stage further; Donald James’s excellent thriller, Vadim (which is good on its own, but even better read after the previous two novels, Monstrum and The Fortune Teller) has a brilliant Russian mafia boss and football-club owner (Murmansk Dynamo) who arranges ‘car accidents’ that cripple his expensive foreign players who don’t perform as well as expected, thus enabling hm to collect on the insurance and try his luck with another signing. This is actually quite reasonable, he argues, since the players collect on their insurance, too, so they can retire from the game — which they’d clearly need to do soon, anyway — well-provided-for, and he could just as easily have them suffer fatal accidents; all the same to him.

Vadim is, of course, a work of fiction.

September 18, 2006

An invaluable product?

Filed under: scams — notsaussure @ 10:34 pm

I swear I’m not making this up… it costs $19.95 to do what Windows 98 and ME used to do for free….

UsefulRest is inexpensive solution to compel you, your fellow workers, children, and other loved ones to take that much-needed break. With UsefulRest software, you can program your computer to lock you out temporarily (according to a schedule you set) for periods which you set for yourselves. UsefulRest does it all for you. This easy-to-use software allows you to customize the duration of your work and the number and length of breaks. It also features levels of blocking and a number of degrees of protection.

Source: OlympSoft – UsefulRest – Protect your health and eyesight from computer influence

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