Saturday, 27 August 2016

Secret Soviet!

Fascinating article on the Russian's secret cold war maps:

The maps were part of one of the most ambitious cartographic enterprises ever undertaken. During the Cold War, the Soviet military mapped the entire world, parts of it down to the level of individual buildings. The Soviet maps of US and European cities have details that aren’t on domestic maps made around the same time, things like the precise width of roads, the load-bearing capacity of bridges, and the types of factories. They’re the kinds of things that would come in handy if you’re planning a tank invasion. Or an occupation. Things that would be virtually impossible to find out without eyes on the ground.



Some race...

...the 1904 Olympic Marathon that is:

The marathon was the crowning blunder in an all-round odd event, and it just gets stranger from there on in. The organisers, to begin with, decided to start the marathon in the afternoon instead of the morning, with the result being an event held in temperatures of over 30 degrees Celsius. It was also run entirely on dirt roads, with cars and horses riding ahead and behind kicking up dust clouds that became hugely problematic for the runners. The only water the competitors had access to was a well around the 11 mile mark — and spectator Charles Lucas notes that “the visiting athletes were not accustomed to the water, and, as a consequence, many suffered from intestinal disorders.”

The whole story is quite remarkable - from a runner who travelled most of the distance by car through to the first African's to compete in a marathon. And drugs, of course.


Scribblings III: Star Wars, flags, skateboarding, free speech and not blaming smoking

Worse than smoking!

We begin with the weird as Grandad encounters reports of the Star Wars obsessive - this my friends is in a space beyond geekdom or nerdism:

daoku began watching star wars at different playback rates in order to do this but again it only lasted a while.
He then purchased the exact cinema seats that were there in 1977 and placed them in his living room.He purchased 40 shop floor dummies, dressed them in 1970's clothes, placed them on the seats and watched star wars until the small hours.

That is just the tiniest of flavours...

It is good to know that, when you need one, you can find someone who has fine details of flag history and etiquette at his fingertip. James Higham is one such:

The ship is right, the three masts are right and the artist may well have been right in 1776 on the flags, though it seems not.

And, as anyone who has been to Parkhead will tell you, getting the flags (and songs right) is important!

Meanwhile Raedwald, from his eyrie in the Alps, comments on risk (and skateboarding):

Some years ago, skateboarders old enough to buy cheap airfares would gather informally in small groups, take postbuses to the high places and board down the mostly empty mountain roads. Much fun. In the UK, the official reaction would be one of horror; the bansturbationists would emerge in force, the Chief Constable would appear on TV, MPs would demand new laws to ban boarders and local councils would deploy wardens to patrol all the steep roads with powers to seize boards. After all, the UK is a nation where it is now forbidden to roll a round cheese down a grass hill because of 'elf-n-safety.

Here's a couple of those skateboarders.

Among all this frivolity there is seriousness. And nothing is more serious that protecting free speech. The Churchmouse reminds us that there appears to be something of an inconsistency in attacks on speech:

Despite recently supporting a European Commission code promising to take down online hate speech within 24-hours of posting, Facebook has failed remove a group titled “I Want to F**king Kill Donald Trump” to the ire of his supporters.

The group was created on May 14 with a post reading “Donald Trumps Hair Looks Like A Bleached Mop – Gordon Ramsey 2016.” The most recent post is, “What Is Your Weapon Of Choice?” Asking what weapon people would use to kill Trump if given the chance.

Me, I liked Facebook and Twitter better when they defended free speech rather than allowing government and the progressive mob to beat them into submission.

Finally - for this week - Leg iron asked where it all went wrong:

As a smoker, I’m feeling neglected. All the things we used to cause have moved on. We were the Grim Reapers who brought death and decay everywhere we went. Every disease, every illness was our doing. I was having fun with that.

As our intrepid freethinker observes - the fussbuckets are now obsessed with food.

There's still hope - as this outcry reminds us.


Friday, 26 August 2016

Heterodox Academy - challenging left-wing hegemony in academia

A long overdue initiative to challenge the domination of academia - and especially academic social sciences - by a narrow left-wing ideology: was founded to call attention to this trend and the problems it is causing for scholarship, particularly in the social sciences and related fields (such as law and public policy). The word heterodox means “not conforming with accepted or orthodox standards of beliefs.” We chose that word to contrast with “orthodoxy,” which refers to conforming with accepted norms and beliefs. Orthodoxy has religious connotations, but it can be applied to any view that becomes dogma or dogmatic, such as “orthodox Marxism,” “social constructionist orthodoxy,” or “progressive orthodoxy.”

It will be a long hard road and I wish those involved - all American, so focused in issues in US institutions. The study of human institutions, of society and of how we behave is too important for one ideology to dominate discourse and debate.


Friday Fungus: Eating batteries and why bagpipes should be banned...

Some fungus going about its rotten business - loverly!
You'll have noticed just how good fungi are at rotting stuff. The mushrooms and their mouldy yeasty brethren are right at the heart of nature's processes for chewing up - recycling if you must - things that are lying around. Sometimes this is a problem - as people looking shocked at a dry rot growth on the house they left lying around discover. But sometimes - like with nappies - it's brilliant:

A team of scientists from the University of South Florida has found a natural way to recycle the tons of waste batteries. Lead researcher Jeffrey A. Cunningham and Valerie Harwood are using three strains of fungi – Aspergillus niger, Penicillium simplicissimum and Penicillium chrysogenum that are naturally occurring in decaying foods. They have presented their finding at the 252nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society that is held in Philadelphia until Thursday this week.

OK the researchers end up with an acidic soup filled with cobalt and lithium. And don't know how to get those lovely metals out. But it's still great and takes us a step closer to better battery disposal and recycling.

When it comes to rotting stuff, however, fungi aren't choosy. Lungs are good:

Playing the bagpipes could prove fatal, scientists have warned, after a man died from continually breathing in mould and fungus trapped in his instrument.

Doctors in Manchester have identified the condition “bagpipe lung” following the death of a 61-year-old man from chronic inflammatory lung condition hypersensitivity pneumonitis.

The condition is triggered by the immune system’s response to inhaling irritants. When the unnamed man was diagnosed in 2009 doctors were puzzled because his house contained no mould and he had never smoked.

Now I know you've always wanted a reason to ban bagpipes...


Thursday, 25 August 2016

Bradford schools - how many children will we let down before we get it right?

So someone shares this article on Twitter. It's a story about an 'A' Level student who didn't quite get the grades to go to her chosen university. First reaction is sad for her but tough - there are thousands of students who've got tantalisingly close to meeting a challenging offer. There are other opportunities, other options, life goes on.

But the story's not really about the girl who didn't get her offer, the story's about the school:

Getting into Durham University is never going to be easy. But it’s near impossible when the school you go to has been placed on special measures by OFSTED three times since you started.

Failing OFSTED obviously shows the school is shit, but it also leads to another flaw that you’ll find in every school like the one Megan and I went to: The pass rate is way more important to the school than how well the students actually do.

Megan would never have even received an offer from Durham had she listened to her Head of Sixth Form, who told her that A-levels would be too difficult, and advised her to take BTECs instead. BTECs can be sneakily added into the overall A-level results of the school, making it look better than it actually is. BTECs avoid any risk because, realistically, who fails them?

These state school teachers are lying to intelligent students, stunting what they can achieve, all for the sake of league tables. It’s hard to know whether to blame them, or the government and regulators who incentivize that kind of behaviour.

And one other thing. The school is in Bradford and, as you know, I'm a councillor there.

I've a feeling that Megan will be fine. She'll get to a good university doing a subject she enjoys. She'll do well and get into a good career. But there are a load of other young people at that school who we're not talking about. These are the ones who left at sixteen with nothing. The ones who might have got an 'A' Level or two. The ones talked out of even applying for university. The ones who'll just be statistics on Bradford's skills gap, unemployment and crime levels.

The school in question is in 'special measures' and is in the process of transferring to an academy chain. Let's hope - once all the arguing over contracts is done - that this means the school, once one of Bradford's better schools, can start delivering the education that children going there deserve.

For Bradford as a whole, it's just another reminder that improving Bradford's education is like a depressing game of whack-a-mole - every time we get a failing or struggling school turned round, another one rears its head elsewhere. The City's education system lacks the capacity to respond - this isn't about the capability of the education staff, the best head teachers and the most effective governors but simply the realisation that we haven't enough of them.

I've argued - indeed the Conservative Group has put forward motions on the subject - that we need to start sharing capacity with neighbouring authorities, to begin to create a sort of 'Yorkshire Challenge' akin to the successful 'London Challenge'. This is rejected for what seems at times to be 'not invented here syndrome' plus ideological resistance to the central government agenda of academies, free schools and a tighter curriculum.

But in the end this isn't about ideology but rather about the very practical task of getting all schools to work like the best schools. We can see what works - ethos, leadership, good planning, high expectations - but too often allow matters like who owns a building or employs the staff to get in the way of running a good school. These days, us councillors have precious little to do with schools - we don't set the budgets, we don't determine what's taught and we don't inspect. Ofsted wants still more powers - our role in school improvement and chunks of child protection work - and the gradual procession to academies seems inevitable.

Rather than moan about the injustice of all this, we should see it as a liberation, as the opportunity to start saying things about schools, teaching, funding and the role of Ofsted that need to be said. To point at failing schools and say "you're failing", to act as an advocate for parents and pupils let down by bad schools and to challenge the use of poverty and social conditions as an excuse for failure.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

In the end bans usually make things worse - the case of cigarettes

The problem with banning things is that it seldom stops them. Even when you take the sort of extreme and violent steps we've seen recently in The Philipines. Yet politicians, policy-makers and their friends in academia still champion bans - de facto or de jure.

One of those bans - although it doesn't look like one because no-one's passed a law with the word 'ban' in it anywhere except Bhutan - is that of tobacco. This is a ban by stealth implemented by steadily raising the price of fags to the point where more and more people can't afford to buy them. Or at least this is the theory.

The problem is that the bigger the gap between the cost of production and the post-tax retail price, the bigger the incentive for people to (illegally) arbitrage that gap. Why take the risk smuggling heroin or cocaine when you can smuggle tobacco! Check out your local paper and you'll see a steady stream of stories about illegal cigarettes (interspersed with stories about cannabis factories). With each increase in tobacco duty, we see an increase in criminal activity around tobacco.

And this is where it ends up - with violence:

The BAT manager was stabbed and bashed by at least three men, after he refused their order that he get into a car. The kidnappers arrived at the man's Sydney home at around 10pm on Saturday June 4.

A source said the manager was forced to "fight for his life" to ward off the kidnappers, who have not been identified. He was rushed to hospital after the attack.

The attack appears to be an unprecedented escalation in the struggle between policing agencies and the syndicates driving the illicit tobacco trade. Evidence suggests the attack was linked to BAT's support of police inquiries.

The manager in question was employed (by that source of all evil, a tobacco company) to support the police in investigating smuggling and illegal tobacco. Why? Quite simply because it's a billion dollar plus criminal business.

Right now, our one-eyed approach to smoking is creating a new international criminal business smuggling cigarettes and tobacco. In the UK, trading standards departments are advised that tobacco companies are the bad boys:

Tobacco companies continue to approach local authorities and local Trading Standards teams in particular with offers to support their tobacco control strategies primarily around tackling illicit tobacco but also in relation to other areas of enforcement including age of sale regulations. Local Authorities are recommended to examine such offers critically in the light of Article 5.3 and its guidelines and only engage in any collaborative work with the industry where this is considered strictly necessary.

That's right folks - the Tackling Illicit Tobacco for Better Health Partnership (essentially a bunch of trading standards officers) thinks it just fine to refuse to work with tobacco companies - businesses selling a legal product - in catching criminals.

So what we have is a new and lucrative business for organised criminals created entirely by policies designed to promote public health. And, rather than recognise the problem, public health and its agents refuse to co-operate with the tobacco companies in reducing the criminal impact of their (public health that is) policies.

Now I call this stupid.