Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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( 'Nother Solent is this blog's good twin. Same words, searchable archives, RSS feed. Provided by a benefactor, to whom thanks.
I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)

The Old Comrades:

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Friday, June 22, 2007
The wisdom of crowds. "Oh dear," say the worried people at Wikipedia. "The murder of Charlene Downes has become a cause célèbre for the extreme right who claim that it is being played down by the media because the victim was white and the accused Asian."

"What shall we do to remedy this regrettable situation?"

"I know! Let's prove them right."

(Via Laban Tall.)

Ever closer union. I generally think that any word or deed that brings closer the great day when the European Union shall perish is a good thing.

But all the same... Poles demand more EU votes to compensate for war deaths

You are kidding, right? Poland didn't lose a fifth of its population so that Tweedledum could have a bigger toy sword.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Eve Garrard of Normblog on different attitudes to democracy in the Middle East:
Firstly, some people think that because a country is a democracy, it is vulnerable to certain kinds of pressure which wouldn't work on a non-democratic polity. So it may be legitimate to threaten and punish it in various ways, e.g. by boycotting its institutions, since these threats are likely to work [...] Furthermore, democratic governments have been voted in by a majority of their citizens, and hence those citizens share responsibility for their government's policies - they're complicit in them in a way that the subjects of a dictatorship, who have no choice, are not.
This view is contrasted with another:
On this second view, the fact that a government has been democratically elected gives it a special claim on our support. We have a duty to recognize it, and we shouldn't try to prevent it from carrying out its policies, since these have been democratically endorsed by the relevant electorate.
View A is usually applied to the voters of Israel; View B to the voters of the Palestinian Authority. But it doesn't have to be so.
So we could, if we wanted, use the first view to justify a boycott of Palestinian institutions because of Hamas's murderous policies, and we could use the second view to demand support and assistance for the Israeli government, indeed for any Israeli government, since they're all democratically elected.

Michael Moore thinks*, concerning 9/11, that "there is much more to the story then we've been told."
"Why don't they want us to see that plane coming into the building? Because, you know, if you know anything about flying a plane, if you're going 500 mph, if you're off by that much, you're in the river. To hit a building that's only 5 stories high that expertly, I believe that there will be answers in that video tape and you should demand that that tape is released."
President Bush can comfort himself that at least now he will get some respect from Mr Moore for his expert ability to fly a plane onto a target considerably smaller than a building only five stories high, namely a runway.

*My headline is intended to amuse.

Friday, June 08, 2007
Qu'est-ce qui gravite autour de la Terre? Keiran Healy of Crooked Timber and his commenters have lots of snarky fun with two surveys about the percentages of Americans who do not approve of inter-racial dating (17%) and who did not know or accept that the Sun goes round the Earth (26%). He writes,
There was a degree of understandable concern about the remaining 17 percent, but (some people said) it’s only been forty years since Loving vs Virginia. And, as it turns out, it could be worse. The idea that the Earth orbits the Sun has had rather longer to catch on, but my colleague Omar Lizardo over at OrgTheory brings us new data from this year’s General Social Survey on the popularity of that idea. It turns out that almost three quarters of Americans now subscribe to the Galilean view. Click through to Omar’s post for data on the percentage of Heliocentric-Positive Americans who think the Earth takes a year to orbit the sun, as opposed to a day, a month, or some other time period.
I argued that it is ignorance rather than adherence to religious teaching that fuels the heliocentric view. An earlier commenter, Quo Vadis, pointed out this painful clip from the French version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire that shows it's not just the Americans who have trouble with the solar system. Note that it was not just the hapless contestant who got it wrong but a majority of the audience. And 2% thought it was Mars.

British readers, do not feel superior just yet. Michael Jennings sent me this link:

A physics teacher begs for his subject back

The thing that attracts pupils to physics is its precision. Here, at last, is a discipline that gives real answers that apply to the physical world. But that precision is now gone. Calculations — the very soul of physics — are absent from the new GCSE. Physics is a subject unpolluted by a torrent of malleable words, but now everything must be described in words.

In this course, pupils debate topics like global warming and nuclear power. Debate drives science, but pupils do not learn meaningful information about the topics they debate. Scientific argument is based on quantifiable evidence. The person with the better evidence, not the better rhetoric or talking points, wins. But my pupils now discuss the benefits and drawbacks of nuclear power plants, without any real understanding of how they work or what radiation is.

I want to teach my subject, to pass on my love of physics to those few who would appreciate it. But I can’t. There is nothing to love in the new course. I see no reason that anyone taking this new GCSE would want to pursue the subject. This is the death of physics.


My complaints about the new syllabus fall into four categories: the vague, the stupid, the political, and the non-science.

I only wish the problem were as new and as limited (i.e. to the AQA examination board) as he implies.

My memories of my time as a teacher are beginning to go as fuzzy as a modern physics specification, that being the re-branded name for "syllabus" in this bright new day, but I think one of my pupils once argued that we shouldn't have nuclear power because the atoms might escape. I didn't give him zero marks, either. He was doing better than many.

Thursday, June 07, 2007
As a craftswoman, I was particularly inspired by the entries to this quilt contest:
"Although “Fibers From Within,” made by #214-000, is rather lumpy and odd-looking, the photograph of it peeking out of a dumpster in Anchorage, Alaska was a stroke of genius. Judges awarded the entrant the “Creativity in Presentation Award.”

"Made of polyester double-knit, satin, brocade, corduroy, lace curtains, burlap, old diapers and four different kinds of fake fur, this masterpiece made most of the judges woozy."

"It is only necessary to see part of this quilt. Trust me.
...Each block is made up of over 60 separate patches from two repugnant novelty prints."

"The Sedalia, MO entrant gained points when judges noted that the entire quilt was stuffed with used bread wrappers. The innovative batting choice was complimented by chunks of novelty turkey fabric slapped to the front of the quilt and affixed with horrid machine stitches."

"Nicknamed “Chicken With Lips” by the judges, this quilt by #041-348 of Roberts, Wisconsin, is remarkably unattractive. It was inspired by a plate given to the maker by a Bulgarian exchange student, hence the name of the quilt. He was later deported."

Aslo, if you wanna see something really, really sad, look at the pictures showing one lady's quilt before and after it went through the washing machine. Click on the thumbnail for "after".

Wednesday, June 06, 2007
A diagnosis of dyslexia is no more than a painkiller for middle class parents whose children read badly, argues Professor Julian Elliot, quoted in this Times article.

I do not agree. You can see the difference in the writing. Plain old bad readers are plain old bad writers but dyslexics are skewed writers. You know it when you see it.

But Professor Edwards has a helluva point when he says, "The disability lobby is so strong and the advantages, financial and otherwise, so great that they are diagnosing dyslexics all over the place," ... "At universities students can get laptops, extra books and other equipment, sometimes to the value of almost £10,000 each. It’s a very problematic area."

More problematic still, to me, is the fact that dyslexic students can get their degree under less stringent conditions than non-dyslexic candidates, and, crucially, the fact that they had the extra leeway does not appear on the certificate.

This has nothing to do with the issues of whether dyslexia is a real condition (I think it is) or what proportion of those claiming it really have it (I have no sure knowledge, though in considering any question to do with the integrity of the modern British examination I am a pessimist.) It also has nothing to do with lack of sympathy for those who honestly struggle with spelling, for any reason. I sympathise greatly with those who are not cheating and not at all with those who are. The prime victims of the false dyslexics, naturally, are the genuine dyslexics.

But even assuming that the diagnosis of dyslexia was utterly certain and utterly unfakeable, an exam is meant to measure how well the candidates do certain set tasks under certain set constraints. It should not measure how well they would have done them if the world had been different.

Why should dyslexia get you extra time when poor reading for other reasons does not? Why should poor reading get you extra time when poor mathematics does not? (Note to self: don't give 'em ideas.) Indeed, why should poor reading get you extra time in a physics exam when poor physics does not, or in a French exam when poor French does not?

It's as if, in the hundred metre sprint at the Olympics, after eliminating in the heats hundreds of competitors who, though healthy, simply did not have the genes and/or the training to make the final, the Olympic authorities added two extra slots on the lineup, set twenty metres forward, for people suffering from some particular wasting disease of the legs.

In his letter to the editor of the Times, John Gillespie writes:

If an employer required French knowledge from a prospective employee, he would have no idea that his prospective employee might require 25 per cent more time to complete a task in this specialist area. If an accountant is employed, does his employer want to discover that his employee needs 25 per cent more time to do his calculations than other colleagues?

Some of the replies just didn't get it.

My son needed extra time in exams not because he couldn’t read but because he can’t spell. I don’t mean the odd problem with “i” before “e”, or how many m’s in accommodation; I mean every word. Visually, he can remember only the first three letters of a word. After that, every word he writes, his name included, has to be spelt out phonetically. Imagine how much time this takes. Would you really begrudge him that extra 25 per cent?

John Gillespie, in his letter of June 1, argues that we should avoid areas where we have difficulties. How many jobs does he think there are where you can avoid reading and writing?

This is not an argument that it is in the son's interest to make. It is people hiring for those many jobs where you cannot avoid reading and writing who don't want to find out when it's too late that they have picked someone who - through no fault of his or her own - can't do the job. I don't so much begrudge this young man his extra twenty five per cent of time in itself, but I certainly begrudge him being given it secretly when others are not. A better argument for the writer to make might have been that there are too few jobs when you can avoid reading and writing. Too much of the modern world is obsessed with dragging reading and writing - bleeding forms and bleeding reports and bleeding policies and bleeding stupid effing mission statements - into fields (including advanced and prestigious fields) where it is not really necessary to read or write that well. I blame goverment regulation.

On the other hand, this is a good point from the same letter:

There are a number of signs which make it possible to spot children who are likely to be dyslexic even before they start to learn reading and writing. Why isn’t every primary teacher taught to recognise these indicators? Not only could appropriate help then be given promptly, but the problem would be diagnosed before the child knew how to cheat.

And a Dr John Macdonald wrote that in many subjects there is no good reason for having such tight time limits.
There is a real need to look carefully at all examinations to see for which ones the ability to complete a task against the clock is an important skill that must form part of the assessment. I teach a course in problem solving to final-year physics undergraduates, and I would value far more a student who took a little longer to produce a better thought-out solution than one who showed the ability to produce an approximate solution in a short time.
I have no difficulty envisaging a dyslexic physics genius.

I suspect that the real reason for a lot of strict time limits is that the logistics of arranging a longer exam are troublesome. The examination centre must cater for more candidates needing the toilet or water or whatever without giving them chances to cheat. These difficulties would cost money to solve - but "free" laptops also cost money. Ultimately, discredited qualifications also cost money. Do not suggest to me that continuous assessment might be the way forward unless you want a poke in the eye; we are only just struggling out of the mire of dishonesty that fad caused, and besides the mummies and daddies want a break from doing all these projects.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007
There is a cherry on top of all this.

Shelley described poets as "the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

I could certainly agree with the views on legislation expressed in this article on free speech by one of our modern-day poets, Pamela Hardyment. (Though it's "playwright" not "playwrite". Just sayin'.) Ms Hardyment is the author of Dancing Alone and Other Poems. She's a supporter of PEN and has signed many of that organisation's admirable petitions to free imprisoned writers.

Pam Hardyment is also a Jew-hater.

"What is particularly disturbing is the way opposition to the Jewish state descends into vicious antagonism against Jews themselves, as shown by this sickening recent outburst from writer Pamela Hardyment, a member of the National Union of Journalists, which in April voted to boycott Israeli goods.

"Explaining her support for the NUJ’s stance, Ms Hardyment described Israel as 'a wonderful Nazi-like killing machine backed by the world’s richest Jews'. 

"Then, like some lunatic from the far-Right, she referred to the 'so-called Holocaust' before concluding: 'Shame on all Jews, may your lives be cursed.'"
That was from Leo McKinstry's widely-quoted story in the Express. It draws on Stephen Pollard's more detailed account here.

Dear old Shelley thought that "Poetry is the record of the happiest and best moments of the happiest and best minds" and says of Homer, Virgil, Bacon, Raphael and Spencer that "if their sins were as scarlet they are now white as snow: they have been washed in the blood of the mediator and redeemer Time." Time, however, is a selective redeemer and only offers the wash to those poets who qualify as great. Some of us may still be alive in around fifty years' time to judge whether Ms Hardyment made the cut. Given that her most well known literary work so far is not only an outpouring of bigotry but also has the distinction of containing eleven consecutive exclamation marks, I am not hopeful.

I promised you a cherry. She's a Truther too. (Signature 7429).

Monday, June 04, 2007
Sumptuary laws.

Jackie Danicki writes, "God save Britain from these sick people who are in power."

Entirely appropriate sentiments. They were prompted by the truly frightening views of a minister:
Asked how much she thought a bag should cost, Justice Minister Harriet Harman said: "That’s a matter for society!"
Want to laugh, because it's about handbags? Got a joke coming about Mrs Thatcher? Be my guest, and you can have my joke about "they will take away my handbag from my cold dead fingers" thrown in. Now you've got it out of your system, ask yourself what power over your life Harriet Harman would not take from you and give to politicians or the mob - for that is what having something decided by society means - given that she would take from you your right to buy or sell a bag at a price mutually acceptable to buyer and seller.