Told you so..

Today’s Guardian has a piece looking at the effects of the French burqa ban. In a nutshell:

France’s burqa ban: women are ‘effectively under house arrest’
Since France introduced its burqa ban in April there have been violent attacks on women wearing the niqab and, this week, the first fines could be handed down. But a legal challenge to this hard line may yet expose the French state as a laughing stock.

I have to show off about my predictive skills here, although anyone with at a week’s experience of living on this planet could have predicted the outcome.

But still, in June 2009, I said…

Some members of the public will demand police action against women wearing burqas. At the very least, insulting women as they go about their daily lives will become more, not less, common. Burqa-wearers will be afraid to appear in the street.

…Exactly the consequences that today’s Guardian report talks about…

There’s some shame for atheists in this story

Secular France has a complicated relationship with the veil. In 2004, all religious symbols including the headscarf were banned in schools. Even among Sarkozy’s opponents there are very few feminists or socialist politicians who would defend the right to wear niqab in a country where secularism is one of the few issues that still unites a fragmented left. Barely a handful of people came to Notre Dame cathedral to protest against the law in April. (from the Guardian)

I refuse to see how interfering with women’s chosen modes of dress “for their own good” can be in any way feminist.

It makes me really uncomfortable to see secularism used as a smokescreen for racism.

I thought I was at least in favour of the French banning all religious symbols in schools but I’ve started to even reconsider that, when I look at it logically. I hardly think it’s a battle worth fighting. It’s basically unenforceable without causing religious believers to become even more entrenched in their sense of having a beleaguered cultural identity.

How do you define a religious symbol in order to ban it? What are the boundaries of religion?

What about an innocent wearing a piece of jewelry with a Chinese Buddhist symbol? The English youths tattooed with Maori warrior symbols for gods they’ve never heard of and couldn’t pronounce even for real money?

Does it only count if you know what the symbols mean? In that case, most wearers of religious insignia would be OK.

What if you know what the symbols mean but just don’t believe in them? (I’m looking at you, all you people with silver rings carrying Egyptian ankhs.) You might have bought a tourist T-shirt printed with a scene from the Sistine Chapel. You might be wearing a reversed cross as a fashion item. You might even be wearing a religious item ironically (like the plastic rosaries incomprehensibly fashionable a couple of years ago)

More seriously, what about dreadlocks? They can be read in dozens of different ways. Locks have religious significance for some rastas. They also have several forms of cultural resonance for many people wearing them who wouldn’t subscribe to the religion – from people who see them as symbols of African heritage to eco-warriors. Some people wear them for purely aesthetic and fashion reasons. Are they banned in French schools? Would they be acceptable for people who could prove they didn’t follow the religion?

However you follow through these ideas, they become nonsense.

If secularist are to subscribe to the idea of banning religious artefacts worn on the body, how can we be sure that any given object doesn’t have religious significance?

By the way, this might be the time to mention that I have recently joined a religion which venerates the holy lounge suit. We are a small religion but utterly fanatical. All men in our faith are required to wear a lounge suit, with the tie of the Eternal Cosmos wrapped around the neck in a complicated knot that represents the interconnectedness of all life.

I sincerely trust that this doesn’t cause more than minor inconvenience in the French parliament.

Health Ministry of Truth

Combining theThe War against Terror with The War Against the National Health Service, the UK Home Secretary is about to propose that doctors be co-opted into the TWAT, by reporting on potential terrorists amongst their patients.

Doctors and other health professionals will be asked to identify people who are “vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism” as part of the government’s redrawn counter-terrorism programme to be detailed on Tuesday. (from The Guardian)

In a departure from recent government style, it seems that, for once, the Lib-Dems aren’t even being used as a human shield for this particular mad idea. Theresa May is putting it forward herself.

Theresa May and her advisers didn’t grow up in Fairyland, so they may have had occasion to visit a doctor. In which case, they should have noticed that, although doctors ask patients some very personal questions indeed, they don’t normally ask about plans to carry out suicide bomb attacks.

Doctors are indeed often too busy to ask where we stand on the single transferable vote or the extension of the eurozone. How wonderfully relaxed must some surgeries be, if doctors can take the time to engage their patients on a wide range of political topics and rank their answers on an extremism scale?

Temporarily ignore the monstrousness of treating medical confidentiality as a disposable luxury. This plan doesn’t even make sense in pragmatic terms. Potential terrorists can avoid getting caught by it by the simple expedient of not discussing their views with doctors. Can this be beyond the wit of even the stupidest terrorist?

Do we really have an Oxford-educated Home Secretary who believes that a terrorist will walk into his local surgery and says “I’ve got a bit of a sore throat but I’m planning an explosive attack on a plane this week and I’d hate to miss it”?

Genius

Facing the dole because of the cuts that have made the IMF so pleased with the Condem government?

(Who knew the IMF had a UK vote? To be honest, I prefer IKEA’s furniture.)

Well, you can now retrain for an easy and rewarding new career as a science journalist, thanks to Martin Robbins in the Guardian who has provided a template for any and every science article you’ll ever write.
This is a news website article about a scientific paper

It’s brilliant.

Eztra: I forgot to mention the links which are pretty funny too.

Enviro-product savings

Review of the products featured on the Guardian’s eco-store today

Green Product Even more astonishingly green alternative Rating out of 5
Dyson Air multiplier An electric fan that looks like an i-phone, if Henry Moore had designed one in a fan format.
Cost: £199
A folded piece of paper waved about in front of your face with a fanning motion.
Cost £0
A minus number too huge to compute
Intellipanel A remote control device for switching off things connected to your tv so you don’t leave them on standby.
Cost: £29.95
Get up and switch off at the set and/or the wall
Cost £0
minus 3
This would be lower-rated than the elegant fan, except for the fact that it’s so much cheaper. At least the fan serves a purpose.
Organic beetroot juice Liquidised beetroot juice and a bit of apple
Cost:£3:09 per 740 ml bottle or £17.38 a case
Grow organic beetroots and apples. Stick them in a blender Cost: a couple of pounds per case equivalent.
(Or, even buy beetroots and apples and liquidise them. That might push the case cost up to a fiver.)
3
Shipping (unreturnable?) glass bottles all over the country marks it down. But at least it’s food and it’s organically grown and so it’s not really adding to the world sum of useless consumer goods that will be landfill in a year.
2 Recycled Grolsch bottles (turned upside down and with their ends cut off)
Cost: £12.95
No, I can’t imagine why you’d want one, either – let alone two – but, it’s easy enough to work out how to do it. Turn a Grolsch bottle upside down. Wrap a hot wire round the base and watch the bottom fall off. Sand it down a bit if you don’t want to cut yourself.
Cost: The cost of 2 bottles of Grolsch, plus you get to drink the beer first. A 20pack of Grolsch costs £20.99 from Drinksdirect. So, that’s under £3 for 2 full bottles of beer.
Or indeed Free, if you already have empty Grolsch bottles. Or any other bottles, as far as I can make out.
1
At least it aims to reuse an existing product. I’d mark it up if standard glass recycling didn’t already exist. But then I’d have to mark it down again for the fact that it implies that the outcome of recycling beer packaging costs the consumer 6 times the cost of the beer in its original container.
Pants to poverty men’s underpants
Cost:£15
Buy normal underpants at about £1 and give ten pounds straight to a development charity if you need to feel that your underwear purchase is doing some global good.
Cost: £11
3
I don’t like the way that “charity” seems to involve paying massively over the odds for things, when it is unlikely that much of the cost ends up where you thought it was going. So, we all pay to feel better about world problems rather than to solve them.
Owl Wireless Energy Monitor (or – as they used to be called – an electric meter.) This shows you how much electricity you are using, so you will see how much it costs and use less (Replacing the traditional electric bill then?)
Cost: £29.95
Switch things off without getting a digital readout first. (Or if you really want to see numbers while you do it, look at your old-fashioned meter occasionally. or look at a digital watch display occasionally and remind yourself that digits mean “Switch something off”)
Cost: £0
1
Glow in the dark brick Stores up solar power in the day to light up an acrylic green brick.
Cost: £13
Can’t think of a way to make this at home. The only obvious alternative is just not to have one. That seems to be working out quite well so far for most of us.
Cost: £0
0.5
I am quite taken by the idea of having a glowing green brick. But despite the sop to my conscience provided by its use of solar energy, I’m still going to have to ruthlessly decide that I will try to manage without one.

Greenwash, don’t you just love it?

Making up numbers

Nothing provides more authority to a policy than supporting it with made-up numbers, it seems. Here is a shameless example:

The communities department estimates that it costs each taxpayer £35 a week to keep people in affordable homes, and it is argued the tenancy for life is an inefficient use of scarce resources. from the Guardian

I don’t know how much income tax you pay but I’ve just worked out – very roughly, based on the allowances and basic rates on the HMRC site – that a single person earning £20k a year pays £52.03 per week in tax. So, the Prime Minister is saying that 67% of this tax goes to “affordable housing”?

And £20k isn’t a great wage. (It’s slightly below the median wage but easier to calculate from.) But it’s much higher than minimum wage.

Millions of people earn minimum wage. A yearly minimum wage is £12,234.40 (from October 2010 anyway, when it rises to £5.93 an hour) So a single person on minimum wage will pay £22.53 tax a week. The magical £35 a week is 1 and a half times their entire income tax bill.

This doesn’t just defy credibility. It spits in its face with a mocking sneer.

These numbers seem to be targeted directly at that section of Middle England which expresses views of the kind that can be seen at their most typical on the brilliant Speak You’re Branes site. (Ie., people dumber than a box of nails. )

The imade-up numbers may be used to obscure the fact that Cameron’s plan actually implies evicting tenants if they have an empty bedroom or if they earn wages.

Cameron did’nt even bother to explain how this is supposed to cut down on the imaginary costs. In fact, he gave a pretend-egalitarian, justification for this mad policy: that there are millions of needy people on waiting lists. .. who would presumably then move into the vacated houses and … start eating up their own share of the taxpayers’ £35 a week.

This makes no sense at all as a deficit-reduction plan – even if the numbers were real. And even if the social consequences wouldn’t be predictably horrific.

Cuts in housing benefit – to a level lower than the “affordable” rents charged by many social and private landlords – already threaten to put thousands of unemployed and disabled people into serious arrears and to drive many into homelessness. When these people are joined by workers earning a bit more than minimum wage and older people whose children have left home or whose partners have died – i.e. the people Cameron is presenting as stealing taxpayers money – it looks as if tent cities will have to start springing up all over the country. We might then get to see what a truly “broken Britain” looks like.

Numberwang on the web

The Guardian has a Data Blog with the subtitle Facts are sacred..

Tempting as it is to wander round the epistemological byways here (What’s a “fact,” for a start?) I’ll spare you that. Instead I’ll express bafflement about the factualness of some specific facts on government websites posted yesterday.

A decorative graphic has blobs to represent the costs of UK government websites. There’s a clickthrough button to get the data from Manyeyes.

The data is shocking, on first view. For instance, it seems to have cost the UK taxpayer £154 for every visit to the Cabinet Office site. Cue horror. Except that these appear to be made-up numbers, with the calculations done on a solar powered calculator sitting at the bottom of a deep well.

Here are a few columns that I took from the data, applied simple maths to and lo! most sites cost a few pence per visit.

I’ve left the original numbers so you can work out costs per visit yourself. I’ve shown my calculations on a blue background.

Details from the govt webcosts spreadsheet

Details from the govt webcosts spreadsheet

I fear I’m doing the post a disservice when I scroll down and find a link to Google docs that offers the full data. Download the full list as spreadsheet doesn’t work for me but, when I look at the data on this sheet, it makes a lot more sense. Costs per visit are down to pence rather than tens of pounds. Not that I can replicate this either. But I get a lot closer.
UK govt web costs, as held in google docs

Ah ha: At the end of the Guardian post there’s a caveat:

UPDATE: an error in the cost per visitor column has now been corrected

Sorry, not when I looked at it it. Which, surely must be after it’s been corrected, or else I wouldn’t be able to see the correction note.

In any case, the original costs are dubious. Some of these sites must be new and have not got a full year’s data. The basis on which any given department has costed its sites might be wholly individual. I am forced to conclude that these are pretty well just made up numbers from start to finish. Although that doesn’t excuse the failure for anyone to notice that a simple division has been borked.

Any reader would gasp at the idea of sites that squander 3 week’s unemployment benefit on each visitor. That “information” sticks in the mind. Few readers would be finicky enough to look at the detail.

It says Facts are Sacred in bold letters at the head of the post. You could be forgiven for absent-mindedly taking it that someone had made sure that these were sacred facts.

A paranoid person might easily assume that the release of such spurious data was part of a propaganda offensive to convince UK voters that the public sector is so bloated and wasteful that the planned public sector cuts will not affect anything important. They’ll just involve stopping stupid and wasteful spending….

Like the imaginary huge (6-year-salary!) redundancy payments to inherently idle public sector workers that another Guardian blogger treats as a representative of the true position. Then characterises the head of a public sector union as a rabid militant for opposing the destruction of his member’s jobs and employment conditions.

I initially, and charitably, assumed this was a random Comment is Free post, maybe by a freelancing Daily Mail journalist.

But it appears that the writer is a senior figure in the Guardian. He was the Guardian’s political editor for 16 years. From his profile:

Michael White is assistant editor and has been writing for the Guardian for over 30 years

I see I have been spending £300 every ten minutes on buying the Guardian and it’s only ever worth it on the increasingly-rare days when Charlie Brooker is side-splittingly funny and Marina Hyde isn’t engaged in electoral enthusiasms for former presenters of shows about amusing vegetables. I begin to think a 40% cut in my Guardian spending is long overdue.

Evolutionary agony

The Guardian has an “evolutionary biology agony aunt.” This doesn’t appear to be a deliberate joke.
The agony auntiness is basically standard newspaper-standard morality, dressed up in an evolutionary biology overcoat.

Readers send in their problems. So far, none of these have seemed to relate to the types of arcane technical or theoretical issues that you’d expect to worry evolutionary biologists.

The “problems” seem to be the dull wrangles between conscience and desire that we all experience, though you would hope that fewer of us share the problem-sharers’ capacity for self-justification.

To paraphrase one: “I am a good catch and my wife can’t breed any more, doesn’t evolutionary biology require me to get a younger model?”

Amazing that people with no capacity far self-knowledge can apparently survive into middle age. Obviously human intelligence wasn’t really that important to the survival of our species… (well, until now, anyway, what with climate change and ecological devastation, and all … )

Is this garbage there to give aid and comfort to creationists? It pretends that biology can somehow replace human morality. It misunderstands basic concepts of evolution, in ways that you would normally expect from the Discovery Institute.

I guess I’ll take it as a joke after all.