Sunday, November 16, 2014

Killing an aid worker

How can this possibly be an act that would be considered "righteous" by any deity?

That is all.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Aspartame - searching for the truth

There's this article.

It sets out to make the case that arguments against aspartame as a sweetener are garbage science. That's fine, I can handle that - you'd then expect that a good scientific argument would be presented to show that aspartame was safe.

Strangely, that's not the way the article goes. It refers to an "Iowa group" (though there is no actual traceable reference - bad science) and then says:
Of women who drank two or more diet drinks per day, 8.5 percent had some sort of heart disease. But, for women who either drank fewer or no diet drinks that number was only 7 percent.
And then it argues:
What is really going on here is a classic case of mixing up cause and effect. No, diet soda doesn’t give you heart disease. You already have more heart disease and drink diet soda to try to cut calorie consumption.
Let's assume that the sample of 60,000 people is divided into two, each numbering 30,000. 8.5% of the "user" group numbers 2550; 7% of the "non-user" group numbers 2100. So the article smoothly concludes - there are more people with heart disease in the "user" group, therefore there is no evidence that sweeteners are causing heart disease.

But the author hasn't made this case. It may be that the case is there, that the paper being discussed doesn't support the conclusion. But by short-cutting to the author's own conclusions and missing out the important science-y bit, the author is just as guilty of bad science. We don't know what expected levels of heart disease are (whether the "user" group is unexpectedly high, and the "non-user" group is unexpectedly low) ... or whether the reason the rate of heart disease in the "user" group was higher because of previous consumption (in other words, it had already caused the heart disease, the "smoking gun"), rather than trying to mitigate the effects of heart disease ... or whether the "user" group and "non-user" group were otherwise identical .... The web article, having failed to properly reference an article, then simply disagrees with the interpretation of the results, and accompanies this disagreement with name-calling and various other approaches designed to close down the debate, which pretty much amount to "only dumbasses would believe this".

I am pretty good at science, and I don't know the truth about aspartame. I am genuinely interested to know if, in addition to making drinks taste disgusting, there are health issues that I ought to be concerned about, especially because it's becoming less and less possible to find naturally sweetened alternatives in supermarkets. So I'd appreciate it if both sides could cut out the arguments that don't stand up to critical analysis, and do a proper job.

One more thing. Levels of childhood obesity were significantly lower in the 70s and 80s, and at the time, drinks containing artificial sweeteners were far less common. There's a causation/correlation thing here, of course - lower levels of obesity were doubtless due to more active lifestyles and so on rather than the sugar we consumed. However, what would be most interesting would be evidence that demonstrated that use of artificial sweeteners actually improved health - preferably produced by an organisation that wasn't financially benefiting from their sale. If that evidence isn't there, then why can't we just stick with natural products? I'd rather consume what has been produced by a farmer than what has been synthesised in a laboratory, given the choice.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The morning after

So Scotland stays part of the UK.

Wisdom after the event is pretty useless, but I guessed at a 45/55 split in favour of remaining (a YouGov app asked me the day before). There was no real intuition there, just a guess that the final result would be a little bit more "conservative" than the polls were suggesting, as people lost their nerve (or as undecided voters thought it was best to go with the status quo). It was much closer than the referendum on electoral reform ....

My thoughts this morning? The three "English" parties have no electoral mandate to offer increased devolution of powers. The settlement that permits public (government) spending to be 20% higher in Scotland is, at least to my mind, undemocratic and an example of the unaccountability of central government. And nobody ever asked us if we still wanted a union with a country so eager to bite the hand that feeds (did I mention that you pay five times more to be a student in Scotland if you are from England than if you are from a qualifying EU country? Source). Those are just a couple of the points relevant to this issue which illustrate how Westminster and the political process in general is also disengaged from the electorate that didn't get to vote. As was commented by another English friend, "When do WE get to vote for independence?"

The turnout in the referendum was over 84%. The last time the UK saw a turnout of this level in a general election was 1950. At the last general election, it was around 65% (source). This shows that people are engaged by political questions, and yet they don't vote in general elections. Why is this? Perhaps because it feels like it makes no difference. Few of the political parties distinguished themselves in this referendum - and yet, there was a genuine sense amongst the voting population in Scotland that they were a part of something. Perhaps it was the very fact that it was largely detached from the Westminster political system - or maybe because, unlike the bulk of votes cast in the general election, it would actually count towards the final result.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Comment on the referendum

I would rather Scotland stayed. But not at any price. I really dislike the thought of you staying because you've been bribed to do so by the three "English" parties and continuing to have a chip on your shoulder about the English, whilst benefiting even more from the taxes paid south of the border, both direct and indirect (students from England pay more than students from the rest of the EU to study in Scotland - don't tell me there's no way around that). Stay as part of Britain and stop your greetin', or go away and find your own path and stop your greetin'.

My father was born in Scotland; my paternal grandmother was a Scot. I am proud of having a Scots heritage. From a Christian point of view, I also have more time for the Reformation as it was expressed in Scotland, and the way it has influenced the ideas of Scots politicians (as opposed to the greedy, self-serving old-boy-ism which shapes too much of English politics and discourse). But the Scotland that I care about was never the one that fell for this vain idea.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Who owns sermons?

When someone preaches in a church, who owns the sermon, from a copyright point of view?

It's a more complex question than you might think. Technically, as the person who delivers the sermon, the preacher owns it. And yet, the church is likely to fairly freely make use of it - put recordings on websites, distribute copies of sermon notes, possibly use extracts in various contexts. And also the church has probably paid the speaker to speak. What rights has that bought? Normally it's not a big deal - the preacher and the church exist in a relationship with one another: the church promotes and uses the preacher's teaching material; the preacher is supported by the church. As an example of the lack of clarity about this which exists, in one church I visit, I kind of discovered that although there was no apparent microphone, my talks were being recorded to listen to later. I wasn't particularly bothered, though.

But there are some circumstances when it may become more of an issue. For example, what if the church wants to use the sermons in another context - perhaps for radio broadcasts, or for publication in a book. Who decides? If royalties are generated, who should get them? Or supposing there is a breakdown in the relationship between church and preacher? This article in Christianity Today discusses the issue. It suggests that the most natural approach is probably to consider that the copyright is owned by the speaker, but he in effect grants the church a royalty-free licence to use his written or recorded material.

What does this mean? It means that the church can basically get on and use the material as they would normally do, and the speaker would implicitly accept that. But the speaker still has control if the church were to decide that it was worth doing something different with the material.

I am involved with a Christian conference, and this raises another bunch of complications. Again, it's reasonable for the conference to use messages from speakers as though this royalty-free licence exists. But since the conference organisation exists in effect as a group of people who make up an ad hoc committee once a year, plus people who work on particular tasks pretty much on their own, how do we decide - or rather, who decides - what use the conference can reasonably make of material that's produced? To what extent should we be telling the speaker exactly how their sermon is to be used? Ideas on a postcard, please ....

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Review of "The Making of Swallows and Amazons"

Having rediscovered Sophie Neville through her blogs and recent autobiographical books, I was really pleased to learn of this latest book. It is a full account, largely from her own perspective, of the process of making the 1973 family film of "Swallows and Amazons".

I was a great fan of Ransome's books as a child, and loved the film when I discovered it. These recollections are published as a remastered version of the film is made available on DVD and Blu-Ray, and for people who are interested in the film itself, or its relationship with the book, it will provide as important a work of reference as Christina Hardyment's books. Additionally, it provides an insight into the painstaking process of making a film in the 1970s - at least from the perspective of a child actor (plus gathered reminiscences from other participants) - and this itself offers some insight into such diverse facets of 1970s life as public transport, health and safety, and diet!

As always, Sophie's writing is a pleasant, easy read. The book includes large numbers of photographs, both monochrome and colour, and she has gathered comprehensive information about just about everybody who was involved in the film-making process - it is interesting how widely people involved in this film spread out across the industry afterwards. This is much more than a book for "completists" or "obsessives" - as with her other books, Sophie has invested the factual elements of a significant moment of her life with the very human reminiscences that shaped it, to create a book that would be an enjoyable and interesting read almost regardless of a person's interest in the film itself.

Friday, July 25, 2014

"The Book Thief", Gaza, Ukraine, Iraq

It doesn't need me to say how good this book is. It was a fascinating and beautiful book to read, particularly having just finished a literature course. Both "contemplation" and "enjoyment" (as C.S.Lewis describes them) were present - that is, I found myself able to accept the odd narrative perspective of the book, and also wonder at the structure, and the structures within the structure, that Zusak has created. 

It seemed a particularly relevant book to read at the moment. Set in the Second World War in Germany, it portrays the impact of the War from the perspective of the "losing side" - both those who believed in Nazism and those who didn't - but in almost all cases, shows their humanity, and the price of the war.

I have no desire to multiply words regarding the fighting in Gaza or the Ukraine/Russian border or Iraq. Enough has been said: what is needed is for people to recognise the fellow humanity of other people. I included the word "simply" in that clause originally - but of course, there is nothing simple about it. Unfortunately, hope and history don't rhyme.
How long?

Friday, July 18, 2014


It's quite feasible to convert a text from a physical book to an electronic book. However, it's a multiple stage process.

The first stage is scanning the physical text. Here's a scanned image from a book called "A Memoir of Adolph Saphir D.D.".

Next, Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software has to be used to convert this from an image into text. This is pretty intensive in terms of computer power. I use Abbyy FineReader 10 Professional Edition. Here's a sample of the output from this (though much of the formatting has been lost in copying from a Word document into Blogger):
TT has been impossible to publish sooner the Memoir of the lamented Dr. Adolph Saphir. On account of his sudden death, which followed so closely that of his wife, there was a delay in the settlement of his affairs; and, consequently, no access could be had to documents of any kind till about the middle of last year—a year after his death. When I was then asked to write the Memoir, much time and labour were required to collect letters and documents from friends and correspondents of Dr. Saphir. But though there has consequently been delay, the Memoir will, I believe and hope, be not less valued by devoted friends, of whom he had very many, nor less interesting to the general public.
A good quality scan makes a difference - by comparing the image and the text, you can see how good a job the software has done in "reading" the image.

However, the most intensive stage is still to come. That is proofreading the text that has been produced. FineReader will highlight places where it was unsure about the translation from image to text, which means that the file can be edited directly in the software. Alternatively, a rough word processor file can be used as a starting point with reference to the original document. In either case, the Scan/OCR stages are pretty much just a question of getting round to them and then letting the computer run. The proofreading stage is a project in its own right.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

"Language versus literature" in the pulpit

I have nearly finished my degree in English Language and Literature. I have enjoyed pretty much all of it (though writing about the Benin Bronzes was pretty painful), and it is proving to be the jump-off point for lots of different reflections.

One is in relation to what happens in preaching, and Bible teaching. Frequently, teaching from the Bible can sound like literary analysis. The teacher takes a text, links it (apparently arbitrarily) with other texts, makes connections (apparently arbitrarily) with some of his own ideas and perspectives, makes (apparently arbitrary) assumptions about different aspects and shades of meaning, and draws (apparently arbitrary) conclusions. This is highly consonant with where we are culturally. From a literary point of view, there's a strong strand which says that meaning is not inherent in the text itself: it is imposed on the text by the listener/reader - hence, we can have black, or gay, or Marxist, or green readings of texts that apparently have little otherwise to do with those perspectives. But if one person derives a specific meaning from a text, it is quite possible that another person might derive a meaning which completely contradicts this. The effect of this understanding of the nature of the text and meaning is that any sense of authority of the text is completely undermined. The teacher explains a text - but this interpretation is just one amongst many; it only has force if you share his or her perspective; and if you don't, then you are free to ignore it. It raises the question of what exactly would be the point of Bible teaching - perhaps it's considered to be some shared existential experience which makes us part of the Christian community, but is not considered to have any real force.

However, this degree highlighted the fact that, in addition to the literature perspective to studying a text, there is also a language perspective. This was very interesting to come across - at various stages in the course, it became clear that the language approach was different. Writers on the language approach were reluctant to criticise their faculty co-members, but the divergence was clear. Firstly, they said, if you lose the idea of context, then you lose most of the meaning of a text. They talked in a Hallidayan way about register variables - field, tenor, mode. All of these have a bearing in understanding a text. And they said, with some deference to their colleagues, whilst different interpretations were possible, some were definitely preferable to others. In effect, whereas the literature approach puts the focus on the reader, the language approach places it back on the text and its purpose as originally written.

This will come as no surprise to Bible teachers from certain backgrounds. One of the thrusts in the Proclamation Trust approach, for example is to "take the listeners to Corinth". The literature approach takes words from 1 Corinthians, for example, disregards the context, and tries to go straight to understanding what it means to us. Proc Trust argue that to understand what it means to us, you need to understand what it meant to the people who heard it originally. Similarly, if a text was written as poetry (for example) then you don't try and interpret it as though it is a scientific treatise.

Or take the use of concordancing. This was introduced to us in E303, Grammar in Context. The idea is, if you want to understand the meaning and significance of a word, then look at how it is used elsewhere in the corpus. But this would be no surprise to those of us who have done Bible teaching. We are used to looking at how words are used throughout the corpus - so when we use the word "faith", for example, we know that we aren't using it in the modern, culturally-conditioned sense of "a leap in the dark". We don't only do this using one translation or version of the Bible, but refer to concordances in the original languages - Greek, Hebrew - to try and get closer to the actual meaning of the word. If we are using words in a way that is different from the way in which they were intended, then we are distorting the meaning.

What is the importance of all this? For Christians, we need to understand what the nature of Bible teaching is. It's not a subjective, literature approach, where meaning is all down to the reader/listener's interpretation. It's a language approach, where whilst we may not be able to fully unpack the meaning, we do accept that some meanings are more accurate than others. This further means that the message of the Bible is an objective matter - it's not something for people to take or leave, on the basis that someone else might interpret it differently. You may reject what a Bible teacher says - but if it has been faithfully explained, you are rejecting not an interpretation of the Bible, but the Bible itself.

Don Carson, in The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism, set about challenging what I have called "the literature perspective" and other ways in which postmodernism has altered our thought forms when it comes to understanding Christianity. But as far as I remember, he did not make reference to the fact that the language part of English faculties already assumes a greater role for objective meaning. It's not a simple question of "us against the world" - we have co-belligerents when it comes to epistemology.

The Liberals in this election

It goes without saying that the Liberal Democrats are going to be wiped out in this election, and probably in the general election next year. That's a depressing thought. There's a saying attributed to G.K.Chesterton: "The Christian Ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried." This still applies to Christianity - but it also applies to the Liberals. I'm not a Liberal; however, my values come closer to those of the Liberal party than they do of anybody else I would be likely to vote for. So here are my reasons for sticking with them.

  • They have demonstrated themselves to be competent, pragmatic and practical at all levels of government for many years. This is why I won't vote for the Greens - the one council they have run has turned into a shambles.
  • They aren't in the pocket of vested interests - either unions, businesses, or buddies they went to private school with. This is the reason that I continue not to vote for Labour or the Conservative Party.
  • They aren't systemically corrupt, hypocritical, xenophobic, misogynistic, lazy, exploitative, self-serving and opportunistic. These are a few of the reasons that I will not vote for UKIP.
What about their track record in government? They are described as having made a power grab; of getting into bed with the devil; of compromising their principles. Is this the case? I genuinely don't believe so. Let's talk about some details.
  • Tuition fees - the big one. They were forced, in coalition, to go against their manifesto promise. That was, undoubtedly bad. But how bad is the tuition fee settlement? Money Saving Expert does not present the new settlement as a disaster. Nothing is repayable until you earn over £21,000 per year (national average wage). What this means is, for the low paid, university access is, in effect free. The new student fee structure has actually improved access to higher education for the low paid. And it means that the higher paid will repay an amount which more closely corresponds to the cost of their education. Is that a bad outcome?
  • By being a part of the government, the Liberals have had the effect of seriously diluting many of the Conservative policies. Is that a bad thing?
  • They have also managed to introduce many of their own policies - for example, major increases in tax allowances. Make no mistake, these are not Conservative policies. And yet, they are government policies.
  • They managed to secure a referendum on a form of proportional representation. The fact that they lost was due to the opposing camp having the support of large groups who had most to gain from the existing system being preserved, despite it not being suitable for a system with more than two parties.
But should they have gone into the coalition at all? Well, what were the alternatives? 
  • The Conservatives could have formed a minority government. This would have given the Liberals less influence - would they have been less compromised? Arguably. Would they have had as much influence in the direction of the country? Almost definitely not. So more Conservative policies - would that have been better? I don't think so.
  • The Liberals could have formed a coalition with Labour. But Labour did not have a mandate to form a government. And furthermore, although there's a degree of revisionism now, I continue to be very disillusioned with the years of Labour government, and simply don't want them in power.
For many years, I protested at elections by submitting a spoilt ballot paper. I am still very frustrated by a political system which (on a national level) blatantly favours two large parties neither of which has the support of close to half of the population. For the first time in this government in my memory, we saw a government that represented the votes of a majority of the electorate. And although it didn't do everything right, it did actually work. I find it profoundly bleak that this one successful experiment with coalition government is likely to result in a return to a government which represents a minority of the electorate, introducing policies that have little to do with the will of the populus.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

The Hobbit as prequel

First in other news ... since Google deleted my Adsense account (see here) I have had more visits to this blog than ever before. April comfortably saw the largest number of visitors in any month since I started the blog. So thanks for visiting.

Watching The Desolation of Smaug (The Hobbit, part 2), I was interested in how strongly the theme of the returning king was brought out in the context of Thorin. The Lord of the Rings is an interesting book in many ways. The most memorable part of the story is arguably what happens to Frodo and Sam, as they travel to Mount Doom with the one ring. And yet there are several other big stories taking place. One is the return of Aragorn. He is the descendant of the great king Isildur, who failed to do what he was supposed to do at a key moment in his story. Aragorn has to battle with temptation to take power for the sake of power, and also to turn away from power for fear of failure. As a teenager reading the books, I don't remember picking this up. But it is a theme that Peter Jackson et al. fairly strongly brought out in the film - from Boromir's first comments on meeting Aragorn ("There is no king in Gondor", or words to that effect), through the journey along the Paths of the Dead, when Aragorn as the heir of Isildur has the power to offer the ghosts in the mountain the opportunity to fulfil their oaths, to the coronation scene near the end of the final film.

I guess fairly deliberately, Jackson chose to echo this in the film of the Hobbit. In the same way that Aragorn is being encouraged to take up his role as the heir of Isildur, Gandalf strongly urges Thorin to return to rule in Erebor. Although Thorin has just twelve motley companions, he travels towards his destiny in his ancestral home, and is recognised as the king by the forces of good (Gandalf), the crowds (the inhabitants of Laketown) and the forces of evil (the orcs, and the Necromancer by proxy).

Unlike Aragorn, however, we know from reading The Hobbit that Thorin fails under temptation. I shan't go into more detail. But Thorin doesn't become the king under the mountain - a role which, it seems, Gandalf had hoped he would to provide another layer of defence against the oncoming onslaught from the powers of evil. It's possible to imagine that Gandalf's idea was almost that the dwarves would be able to provide a strong barrier to the rise of Sauron - and indeed, reading The Lord of the Rings, we do find that the dwarves of the North do provide a defence against the Dark Lord. But they never have the strength that they might have hoped to have - they aren't able to permanently reclaim Moria, for example. How much of this is ultimately down to the failure of Thorin to become the ruler he was supposed to is not clear. But there are striking contrasts between the role of Thorin in the films of The Hobbit and that of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Thanks, partner

So this happened yesterday:
With our advertising programs, we strive to create an online ecosystem that benefits publishers, advertisers and users. For this reason, we sometimes have to take action against accounts that demonstrate behavior toward users or advertisers that may negatively impact how the ecosystem is perceived. In your case, we have detected invalid activity in your AdSense account and it has been disabled.
I've had an AdSense account for quite a few years. It's never made a significant amount of money - in fact, never even enough for them to have to pay me at all, despite the fact that I had to give all sorts of financial guarantees and comply with US tax legislation.

More recently, my son linked the AdSense account to his YouTube video channel. In actual fact, he had set up his own AdSense account, jumping through all the required hoops. Just at the point that he had a video that had had enough views to earn some money, he was told that the account was invalid, as there was another one registered at the same address. Why they hadn't seen fit to point this out when the account was registered is not clear. So he cancelled that account, and linked it to mine.

Joel's videos were more successful at gathering revenue than mine were. A couple in the last month suddenly got a much higher amount of revenue than any previously had, with no warning. Having worked patiently at the account for years, that cheered us up. But it was too good to be true. Out of the blue, this email arrived, and the AdSense/YouTube partnership was suspended.

As far as I can tell, the likelihood is that bots - automatic programmes which crawl over the internet - had "clicked" on adverts, artificially inflating the rate of return. The account was suspended because of the suspicion that we had clicked on the advert links ourselves, or paid someone to do it. That's crazy given our context - I wasn't really interested but had adverts there because I might as well; Joel's long term ambition was to make a living as a YouTuber, so he had scrupulously stuck by the rules (and frequently had to explain them to me) - and beyond that, operated defensively. He lived in fear of getting a "copyright strike" - someone filing a complaint against one of his videos which would lead to YouTube "shooting first" and not bothering to ask questions at all.

The only "encouraging" thing is that other, much bigger, AdSense "partners" have had exactly the same experience - in some cases, losing revenue streams of thousands of dollars on a whim. An appeal process exists - you're invited to explain yourself in 3000 characters, but you aren't told the grounds for your suspension, and if the appeal fails, not only do you have no further recourse, but you are banned from working with AdSense in the future.

So here was my appeal:
How do users get to your site? How do you promote your site? *
I assume that the site in question is the YouTube channel (jomightymaniac) rather than the blog ( which has only ever earned pennies. It is promoted through YouTube subscriptions, posting of links on blogs (,, and links on social media sites.

I don't know who reads this. Please don't simply bin this account because you think it makes no real difference, and nobody can come back to you about it.

For years my son has wanted to make a living as a YouTuber, and has scrupulously tried to abide by the rules, and accepted that the impersonal YouTube/AdSense machine is actually indifferent to the people that provide the original material they display. Through their untimely actions, they have already cost him money on multiple occasions that, as far as he was concerned, he had earned. There is NOBODY that will talk to him about these either, but even so he has put up with it in pursuit of his dream.
Have you or your site ever violated the AdSense program policies or Terms & Conditions? If so, how? Also, include any relevant information that you believe may have resulted in invalid activity. *
Not consciously. I couldn't say that we have faithfully skipped every ad that started showing, or never clicked on an advert, but there has been no systematic attempt to artificially create ad traffic either. Neither have we watched videos multiple times to drive up traffic.

Google describes its AdSense users as "partners". In fact, it is completely indifferent to them, even though they are providing the original content that makes the internet a suitable medium for advertising. It won't lift a finger to help them and will drop them with any excuse, and apparently without meaningful appeal. This is not "partnership". Why do you have this policy of shooting first and asking questions later? Your "partners" are depending upon you.
Please include any data from your site traffic logs or reports that indicate suspicious IP addresses, referrers, or requests which could explain invalid activity. *
We have no such analysis of either website; we are amateur users, and not that sophisticated. We did notice that two recent videos attracted a surprising amount of revenue, especially given the relatively small number of views they received. In them, my son had been trying a new editing technique, but this should not have generated more revenue. We were surprised by this bulge in revenue, but since it hardly represented a fortune ($25, maybe?) we didn't consider it ridiculous.

I note from an internet search that Google has a record of hitting publishers when the actual issue seems to have been either bots clicking or possibly even malicious users (my son has lived in fear of being hit by a malicious or even incorrect "copyright strike"). Our accounts are not significant either to Google or to their advertisers; in the years that our relationship with AdSense has existed, we have not earned enough to be paid even once.

We await your response with hope, but not optimism.

And here was the response:
Thanks for the additional information provided in your appeal, we appreciate your continued interest in the AdSense program. After thoroughly reviewing your account data and taking your feedback into consideration, our specialists have confirmed that we're unable to reinstate your AdSense account.
So that's that. A "partnership" arrangement that has existed for probably ten years, which has cost Google nothing, deleted without warning, or explanation, or appeal.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

MH370 - the smoke theory

Ten days from the disappearance of the aircraft, and it is not only still missing, but we don't even have a plausible story as to what may have happened. My North Korean scenario, already looking fairly implausible at the time I wrote it, was pretty much laid to rest with the revelation that the final satellite trace of the aircraft, some eight hours after its take-off, suggested that it was somewhere on a large arc stretching from Kazakhstan to the southern Indian Ocean (see here).

One of the few narratives that has come across as plausible is this one, by Chris Goodfellow, a U.S. pilot. His thought is that a fire had been gradually taking hold on the aircraft, damaging electrical systems, and it was detected just at the point at which communication was being transferred to Vietnam. The aircraft was turned towards the nearest suitable airport, but the pilots were then busy dealing with the smoke on board. Eventually, they were overcome by smoke or fumes and died, but the fire died out, and the aeroplane flew on until it ran out of fuel and crashed.

This hypothesis has the advantage of at least sounding like the sort of thing that a pilot might do, and also repaints the pilots of MH370 as heroes. However, it has not received complete acceptance. Two rather sarcastic responses can be found here and here.

I wrote my own response when I first saw Goodfellow's theory being circulated, as people were asking me about my opinions, and I wasn't convinced. My thoughts were that it was a possibility, and I wouldn't rule it out yet (after all, we are still very short of plausible scenarios). But there were several reasons that I wasn't convinced.
  • The aeroplane was actually not that heavy (contra his assertions). 239 people on board an aircraft that will comfortably carry over 300 - the payload could be increased by 10 tonnes or more. Eight hours fuel on board an aircraft (B777-200ER) that  has an absolute range of 18 hours - the fuel load could be increased by probably 40 tonnes. So it was probably at least 50 tonnes below its maximum takeoff weight. Neither was it that hot when it left Kuala Lumpur - it was midnight local, the temperature was probably around the mid-20s. So it was not a "hot night" or a "heavy aircraft" (indeed, if it were that heavy, then it would not have been able to get up to 45,000 feet later on). These details aren't necessary for the scenario - however, it does paint a picture of a scenario that has been constructed to fit Goodfellow's ideas, rather than the facts.
  • Key events need to take place at just the right time. The fire knocked out ACARS early in the flight apparently - an event that went unremarked by the pilots. (Incidentally, it's not hard to switch off ACARS - it may be as simple as selecting a different radio frequency). The smoke suddenly appeared and demanded a response from the pilots just at the point that they were handed over to Vietnam. It's possible, but requires a surprising series of coincidences.
  • Most electrical fire "power down" procedures don't leave you with no radio at all. Pilots would be on oxygen; the oxygen masks have microphones in them; and emergency electrical procedures will leave at least one pilot flying and operating a radio whilst the other seeks to deal with the problem on board. Some sort of distress call would have been a priority with the survival of the aircraft in jeopardy, even if "communicate" is third on the list of priorities after "aviate and navigate".
  • Finally (though not exhaustively) where did the aeroplane go? No trace of it has yet been found.
There are a couple of key bits of information that would help to make sense of the incident. Things like: what was the actual fuel load (and hence range)? The pilots can use ACARS to get information during the flight, and also get information before they arrive on the aeroplane; presumably, this information is recorded; what did they ask for? And other similar questions. I have little doubt that, if there are people who take seriously some of the more alarming theories circulating, they will have asked these questions already. Of course, I may be wrong - I only have the same information as everybody else. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

MH370 - a North Korean scenario

Okay, this post is a little tongue in cheek, and may get out of date very quickly – the story about Malaysian flight 370 going missing is still developing, and new information could appear at any time. And of course, especially since I know various people who work in airlines, I have every sympathy with passengers and crew and their families, and hope the truth comes quickly to light.

But as well as the human story, there's the events themselves, which have captured my attention along with that of many other people. What has taken place looks like quite a feat of planning. So I thought I'd chip in with my thoughts.

When the news about the disappearance of MH370 first broke around the eighth of March, a few people pretty quickly mentioned "North Korea" – after all, it's in Asia, it was about to declare election results, and its policy decisions are pretty unconventional. Maybe it had shot the airliner down, or something.

But if you look at a map, you see that North Korea is a long way from the area where the Boeing 777 went missing. So people set that thought aside fairly quickly, and the focus was on the aeroplane being lost close to where it went missing.

In the last couple of days, though, new information says that the aeroplane continued to remain powered for up to seven hours. That changes a lot – in that time, not counting the effects of any wind, the aircraft could travel another 2500 miles or so. That's a big search area – so big that the only way we might ever know what happened is if we have a story to start with. And if it's the case that the aeroplane was taken off route on purpose, then someone somewhere definitely has a story.

So here's what may have happened.

One hour out of Kuala Lumpur, the transponder is switched off, along with all communication systems. The aeroplane is basically invisible to the civil radar system, and not talking to anyone. The aeroplane continues towards Beijing, but not talking to the outside world. The passengers are unaware that anything untoward is happening. As it gets within an hour or so from the destination, the pilots announce to the passengers and crew that the aeroplane is diverting – perhaps to Jinzhou airport to the east. The cabin crew prepare the aeroplane for landing, but just twenty minutes before landing, off the Chinese coast, the pilots turn further east, and make for an airport in North Korea, landing there around the time they were expecting to land from the diversion. With careful management of the aeroplane, the first the cabin crew or passengers know about where they are is after the aeroplane is shut down. And if there's no mobile phone signal, then nobody can get a message away.

What evidence does this deal with?

No wreckage has been discovered where the aeroplane went out of contact, and it would have taken pretty much five more hours for the aeroplane to fly to North Korea, land and power down. It also explains why THIS flight was taken, as it can continue towards North Korea without the passengers being aware of it until too late. If the passengers were alive and knew that the aeroplane was going in a completely different direction, I think they'd have made attempts to use mobile phones or other communication devices – almost certainly someone would have managed something. The passengers' mobile phones were reported in some cases continued to ring – this might be because the passengers made it alive and well to North Korea, but then had the phones taken away from them or something.

The map below shows great circle tracks from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and Pyongyang.

What are the problems with the theory?

Well, to be honest, this is a pretty unlikely theory.

First, the radar return heading west across the Malay peninsula, which has resulted in the search attention being redirected to that area. There are various possibilities. One is that it was a deliberate decoy – in the same way that the aeroplane went incommunicado at a particular point to focus attention on that, a radar trace in the wrong direction which subsequently came to light would also provide a distraction and keep people looking in the wrong direction.

Second is, although the transponder, radio systems and presumably things like Collision avoidance systems, were switched off, is it really possible for an airliner to fly for thousands of miles without being detected? The transponder provides an active system, which air traffic control systems use – but aeroplanes also produce a passive reflection for radar – the system that was used before transponders were – and a Boeing 777 would produce a pretty big echo. If you look at the route from Kuala Lumpur to North Korea, it would take the aeroplane close to Hong Kong and Shanghai, pretty busy airspace. I showed the position of these airports on the map above. Could it really have avoided being detected all through this airspace?

Third, wouldn't someone have seen it? As far as people on the ground are concerned, how much notice do you take of an airliner at cruising altitude. When was the last one you saw? I suppose if it's somewhere that you never see one, then you might notice – but otherwise, you probably wouldn't consider it to be a significant event. What about other aeroplanes noticing? That's harder. If the aeroplane was invisible and its presence not known, with a lot of the systems switched off, then the pilots would have had to sort out their own means of avoiding other aeroplanes – there's a lot of space, but aeroplanes tend to be funnelled down narrow corridors called airways. Having said that, aeroplanes pass each other like ships in the night, and the pilots will just assume that they are being looked after by air traffic control. The easiest way of not being noticed is probably to look as though you're supposed to be there.

But finally, WHY? There's half an opportunity, but what could be the motive? It's possible to imagine that one or both of the pilots might have been bribed, and the North Korean government is notoriously unpredictable. But what would the government actually do with an airliner full of passengers if it arrived there?

There are all sorts of technical problems with this as a story, and it raises loads of questions. But at the moment, we don't have any stories at all. With this story, at least we have some parts of the "how", even if we don't have a "why".

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Judge Jones redux

Scientists are required to leave a detailed trace that shows how their facts produced or supported particular conclusions. Such a trace typically involves multiple stages of analysis. The researcher shows, for instance, how he or she moved from the context-specific empirical encounter (the "facts") to a concept-dependent conclusion. What scientists know, in other words, cannot be taken on faith: they have to show how they got to know what they know. This is hammered into the rules of the game; it is part of the prerequisites for publication.
For judges, however, such burden of proof does not seem to exist to the same extent. How they believe that the facts motivate a particular conclusion (and thereby judgement) can be expressed in a few lines of text.
This quote comes from "Just Culture", by Sidney Dekker. He is writing about the role of trials and criminal or civil proceedings following accidents or incidents that have been categorised as "human error" - particularly in the contexts of medicine and aviation. He argues in his book that the use of the justice system not only fails to produce a just outcome, but it fails to improve safety.

But although his insights into these things are very important, that's not why I'm quoting it. I'm thinking of the Kitzmiller v Dover trial. Here, Judge Jones ruled that intelligent design was not science. The whole thing, at the time, left me feeling uneasy, and not just because I disagreed with his analysis. Dekker puts his finger on one of the reasons why. The role of judges is to decide between competing truth claims on behalf of society. This doesn't mean that the version of the truth that they find in favour of is necessarily the absolute truth. As a society, we accept the role of the justice system to come to conclusions on behalf of society, in the same way that we accept the rules of a game. But a judge is not qualified to make a decision about a philosophical question. Judge Jones was called upon to decide between the different positions, and in this context apply the law as he understood it. That's fair enough; that's why we have a judicial system. But his opinions about the status of ID have no particular philosophical standing - the only authority they have is based on the authority of the evidence that he was presented.

Judges decide between truth claims; they don't make truth claims. Opponents of ID have said that "Judge Jones says ID isn't science" as though this represents additional authority. It doesn't.