Archive for November, 2011

I’m midway through moving from Switzerland to Australia, so it’s a quick post today. The UK is currently dealing with a phone hacking scandal, wherein newspapers have been found to have illegally hacked the voice messages and SMS’s of various people, from celebrities to families of deceased soldiers. I haven’t followed the debacle very closely, but I did note with interest the witness statement of comedian and actor Steve Coogan. Here are some highlights:

In March 1996 a journalist phoned my daughters great-grandmother, who was in her eighties at the time. The reporter pretended to be doing a survey for the council but asked
increasingly personal questions about me and about my daughters
mother. When challenged, the reporter admitted she was from the
Daily Mirror. She insisted that this was the way things were done
and urged the old lady to ‘spill the beans so it would be over with’.
The Mirror had apparently obtained the phone number by copying
the senders address from the back of a letter in the communal
lobby of my flat. …

Over the years. journalists and photographers have frequently
camped outside my house day and night, watching who comes and
goes (the News of the Worlds Paul was one of them). Sometimes I have been alerted to this by generous neighbours knocking on my door to let me know about ‘the men in the cars with cameras’ outside my home. Some of these reporters have gone through the rubbish in my bins, and some have followed me in cars when I left home.

I am bringing civil action in relation to the hacking into my
voicemail. In addition to the hacking evidence, I have seen
evidence in Glenn Mulcaire’s notebook of amounts of money I have withdrawn from cash machines, and details of hotel bills I have paid and the payment method used. lt is a staggering intrusion into my (or for that matter, anyones) privacy.

You can find the entire statement here, and it makes very interesting reading. It says a lot about the British tabloids that The Mirror reported Coogan’s witness statement under the headline “Steve Coogan: ‘I’m not a paragon of virtue. I just do what I want'”. Unbelievable.

This is wrong on a number of levels. Firstly, a number of tabloids have responded that celebrities have used the media to achieve fame, and so have signed away their privacy in exchange for success. This is nonsense. Tabloids do not make movie stars. Movies make movie stars. Acting talent is not purchased at the expense of basic human rights. Further, many of the victims were not celebrities, but grieving parents.

The media is not an optional extra in modern society. They play an important role in democracies, as they are charged with investigating our representatives, drawing on critical journalism to cut through the spin. Even with the Leveson inquiry, it’s hard to see how the situation will change until the newspaper-buying-public votes with its money and sends the message that a newspaper which wastes its credibility on celebrity trivia will be stay on the stand.


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Pencil me out!

To my shock and amazement a few Tuesdays ago, I realised the appalling inefficiency of the humble pencil. The typical pencil is about 15cm long, and its lead is about 2mm thick. I’ve noticed, in my own pencil usage, that when the tip is more than about 0.75mm across that I will sharpen the pencil. This means that the outer 1.25mm of the pencil lead is wasted in the sharpening process. And because it’s the cross-sectional area that matters, this amounts to 86% of the pencil lead. Coupled with the fact that the last 3cm of the pencil is unholdable, that means that about 90% of the lead in a pencil is wasted! Isn’t that shocking!?

I, for one, am outraged. Protests are being organised. Potential slogans are invited. So far, I’ve come up with:

Don’t pencil me in

Lead is dead

Not 2B – that is the answer

Make pencils disappear

That last one is a bit dark.

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This was an epoch making book for me – it was the first book I read on a Kindle. I think the Kindle is great, especially for quote miners like myself. You can highlight passages, and then with the help of an Applescript (google it), one can download the highlighted passages to note taking software EverNote. Genius. If they handled PDFs and note-taking better, I’d be very tempted to dispense with printing papers altogether.

As for the book, it was very enjoyable reading. The topic of the book is the progress made towards understanding the natural world made during the Middle Ages, which are often portrayed as an intellectual dark age. Here are a couple of notable passages:

  • I’ve heard some (usually not historians) claiming that the Medieval universe was small and pokey, obviously the product of small minds and blinkered imaginations. As far back as Boethius in 500 A.D., we see the opposite view: “It is well known and you have seen it demonstrated by astronomers, that beside the extent of the heavens, the circumference of the earth has the size of a point; that is to say, compared to the magnitude of the celestial sphere, it may be thought of as having no extent at all.”
  • Similarly, Hannam addresses the idea that the Copernican revolution displaced Earth from its honorable place at the centre of the universe: “Another modern misconception about the medieval Christian worldview is that people thought the central position of the earth meant that it was somehow exalted. In fact, to the medieval mind, the reverse was the case. The universe was a hierarchy and the further from the earth you travelled, the closer to Heaven you came.”
  • Why do experiments? Because there are many ways that the universe could have been, and the only way to find out is to go and see. The physical universe is not a logical necessity, and thus its properties cannot be deduced. It’s surprising how long it look for this idea to catch on: “For Aristotle, the iron shackles of logical necessity determined what the laws of nature had to be. They were not just the ones upon which God had deliberately decided, they were the only ones he could have used. Even if God had actually created the world, he would have had no choice about how it turned out.”
  • A few years ago, Sydney University hosted a “comedy” debate about who was greater, Einstein or Newton. Physics (somewhat arbitrarily) defended Einstein against the mathematicians. Everyone’s favourite supervisor was heard to disparage the great Sir Isaac by saying that he ascribed gravity to “the occult”. It seems, however, that this was not a reference to witchcraft, but rather just the word associated with action at a distance: “Nowadays, the word ‘occult’ specifically means ‘magical’ or something connected to spiritualism. But it used to have a much wider sense, connoting any force or property that was hidden. Put bluntly, if you cannot see it, it could be classed as occult. Aristotle had little time for the concept and argued that all effects must be material. One thing, he said, can only affect another by touch.” (more…)

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