Saturday, 15 December 2012

People, Guns, Ammunition: Which Kills?

Before you read further I would like to make one thing crystal clear. I like Americans, and have many American friends. I think America does some things better than us in the UK, for example sentencing of criminals, and the government system has a proper separation between Executive, Legislative and the Judiciary in America. Not so in the UK.

Also, I am not anti-gun per se. In school I belonged to the gun club - air rifles, and have visited the local gun club, although only once about ten years ago. My interest is purely in the skill required to accurately place a small piece of metal in a paper target hundreds of feet away. In that respect sports shooting is no different to archery or darts, both being target based skills with projectiles.

However, in the wake of the tragedy in Connecticut yesterday, there is yet again the need to address the issue of gun laws and ownership. America is not alone in gun related tragedies; in the UK we have had Hungerford, Dunblane and most recently Rothbury in Northumberland and probably others that don't come to mind at present. Norway too with the rampage of murder perpetrated by Anders Breivik Breiling. Other countries have had their tragedies too.  So it is not a uniquely American problem.

That being said, there are three main areas requiring attention:

1.  The US Constitution. What is unique to America is the belief that a right to bear arms for all is enshrined in the Second Amendment of the US Constitution.

Let's have a look at the article in question:

As passed by the Congress:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

As ratified by the States and authenticated by Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

The two are identical, bar a capital M and a comma. What both have in common is the clear link between a 'well regulated militia' and 'the right of the people to keep and bear Arms..' It does not anywhere state ordinary citizens may bear arms just because they want to.

In reading the Constitution, or any historic document, the reader must always bear in mind the circumstances under which it was written. In the late 18th century America had only recently won independence from the United Kingdom, and the separate states had not yet formed into the United States of America which we know today - the Civil War would not unite them for another 80 years or more. In the article linked above a clear point is made by those involved that

a) A land-owner should be allowed to hunt on his own land, requiring a gun to do so.
b) Each State had a legal obligation to operate a militia in order to quell insurrection etc. In fact there is a clear point made with regard to the military aspect of the right to bear arms.

2.  Even today America has wildlife capable of killing; bears, rattlesnakes, wolves, coyotes etc. Thus it makes sense that a person who commonly goes into the wilds hiking, for instance, should be allowed to arm themselves with a rifle for self defence. It even makes sense, to a slightly lesser degree, to allow people who live in cities to own hand guns for personal and home protection.

It does not make sense, in any conceivable scenario for a private citizen to own an automatic weapon, or semi-automatic larger than a handgun.

a) Automatic / assault rifles cannot be carried openly, even in America.
b) They are almost useless for home protection as the owner would spend too much time wielding a bulky weapon in a restricted environment.

Therefore at the very most, only handguns should be in the possession of private citizens, unless they can show a definite requirement for a rifle. In the latter case there is no justification for automatic weapons in private hands.

3.  There is an old saying, almost always used in these cases to justify gun ownership. 'Guns don't kill people, people kill people.' This seems to be saying it's perfectly alright for everyone to have guns because only some of them will kill each other. When you realise that interpretation you realise how wrong the statement is. However, it is half right. In my opinion the full saying should be:

'Guns don't kill people, the ammunition in guns kills people.'

This brings up an issue which time after time is totally ignored and needs repeating. We are told that the killer in Connecticut yesterday had around 200 rounds of ammunition, an assault rifle and two hand guns. Point 2 above covered the aspect that there is no logical reason a private citizen should have had an assault rifle.

Current reports state 27 people died, which means about 1 in 7 of his rounds caused someone's death. Had there been stricter controls on the ammunition, and he'd only been allowed handguns, the situation would have been far less of a tragedy - still a tragedy for his victims' families of course and even one death in these circumstances is abhorrent. However, the average hand gun holds approximately 10 rounds, a revolver average of six; had be been armed with one of these and proper control of ammunition sales had been in force, with an average of 1/7 shots killing someone the death toll would have been one at most.

My speciality is in IT, specifically Software Development. It would not take a competent database developer very long at all to augment the existing gun owner database in America - presumably operated by the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) - to add a record for ammunition purchases. Under such a system it would be much easier, albeit not foolproof, to track ammunition purchases.  For example:

a) Purchaser enters store and shows gun licence (I would make this a prerequisite even for ammunition purchase). I would also place an upper limit on the volume of a single purchase.
b) Purchases ammunition and leaves store.
c) Purchaser enters another store and attempts to buy more. Upon seeing their gun licence and entering it into the system the owner would see the prior purchase and refuse the sale.

While it is not a perfect system by any means, it could be strengthened with safeguards, such as a requirement to justify why someone was making regular purchases, and a centralised system could be devised to detect unusual patterns in purchasing.

[Addendum: Following the first statement by the National Rifle Association - NRA - of America it seems appropriate to update this blog to reflect on their statements.]

They claim that designating schools as gun free zones tells 'every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk.'

There are two problems with that statement:

1. There is an assumption that all killers are insane and doesn't accept that some may have a motive for what they do, such as terrorism.
2. If gun control was tighter then the 'insane killers' couldn't cause their 'mayhem' as they wouldn't find obtaining guns and ammunition so easy.

Secondly they claim violence in video games and films is to blame for portraying murder as 'a way of life'. If this were true then tragedies such as Newtown would be a far more common occurence as everyone who saw a violent film would go out and re-enact their favourite scenes. This doesn't happen, and there are enough examples of mass murderers who didn't - in some case couldn't - have that kind of influence to refute the suggestion, for example these from the UK:

Myra Hindley and Ian Brady: - Active between 1963-65, they had no access to violent films or computer game - neither video players nor home computers had been invented.
Peter Sutcliffe, aka The Yorkshire Ripper: - Active between 1969 (assault) and 1975-80; 13 murders - no link to violent movies was ever mentioned and his activities were prior to home computers.
Fred and Rose West: - Active between 1967 and 1987 first he, and then the pair murdered 11 young women and girls. Again prior to home computers, and no mention ever of violent movies.
Harold Shipman: - Active between 1975 and 1998 - 250 murders officially ascribed to him. A 53 year old doctor in 1998 who in at least one case killed a patient having had her change her will leaving £386,000 to him, therefore showing premeditation and a clear motive, ergo not insane. Unlikely that he watched violent movies or played computer games. Yet he was the most prolific mass murderer in British history.

The most obvious example that comes to mind is Jack The Ripper. I don't think it's necessary to give a link to his exploits as he is infamous, other than to point to the fact he was active between 1888 and 1891. No more need be said regarding computer games or movies I think.

The truth is that in order to kill, a person must possess a propensity to kill already. The stimulus for the act could be anything, a perceived slight, an attack, jealousy etc. Saying that violence in games and movies causes murders is like saying going to church makes a person want to join the priesthood. While a small minority who go to church may want to join the priesthood, the likelihood is that they already wanted to which is why they went to church.

People who murder may well play computer games and watch violent movies, but that is because they already enjoy the violence; it doesn't make them violent. They are unable to separate fictional scenes in games or movies from reality, and that is a mental illness which is not caused by the input they receive.

I will concede there is a possibility that the person who wants to kill may glean ideas on how from games or movies. However the obvious counter to this argument is that to the victim it matters little where their killer got the idea from, they are still just as dead.

The NRA say 'The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun'. Well now that's not entirely true, as there are many non-lethal methods of stopping an armed assailant from pepper spray and tear gas, to rubber bullets and tasers. Stopping him getting near his target is an obvious non-lethal method; simple security doors and metal detectors will achieve this aim. What the NRA's argument glosses over is the fact that if the good guy is shot and killed, his gun will be stolen and there is another illegal weapon on the streets - or in his hands in the school.

The NRA advocate armed security in every school, drawn from retired active and retired police officers, security professionals and firefighters. In a nutshell the NRA, instead of having one possible gunman with a handgun and limited ammunition - which is what the suggested ammunition control would result in - would have what is essentially a Private Military Contractor (PMC) conducting a firefight within a school. Now I know the Special Forces are capable of Hostage Rescue in situations like this with minimal loss of life to the captives, but really? A PMC in every school is the best option? In my opinion all this will do is add to the death toll, as any killer - insane or otherwise - will factor in the additional opposition, be heavier armed with protection, and the only difference is the armed guards will be the first to die.

As for their claim that a ban on assault weapons would not have any effect, perhaps they'd like to explain their reasoning on that one in detail. I have no idea what possible logic could lie behind that statement.

I'll end with a quotation. In 1937 a Spanish town named Guernica was virtually flattened by German bombers fighting on the side of Franco in the Spanish Civil War. In the aftermath of the attack a poster was created with the slogan;

'If you tolerate this, then your children will be next.'

The warning, unheeded then, was stark.

'If you do nothing now, the next time it may be your children who die.'

Please America.. don't ignore this warning, don't let more of your children die..

[NB. If you recognise the slogan, yes, the Manic Street Preachers used it in their lyrics.]

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Spotting Computer Scammers

I'm sure everyone has had the cold-call saying 'I am calling from Windows, your computer has a virus' or something very similar. Obviously not everyone is technically adept or highly computer literate, so I thought I'd put together this very simple (I hope :)) guide to spotting scammers of this type.  I've been involved in IT since studying for my O Levels in 1985, over six years in Internet Technical Support helping customers understand their problems, so hopefully I can do the same for you.

If you're not interested in the explanation feel free to skip down to the One Simple Rule at the bottom, however I hope you will persevere with the explanation.

I will only use two items of IT jargon, and will explain them before I begin.

ISP. Your Internet Service Provider is the company you pay for Internet access - in some cases such as Virginmedia, Sky and BT also for your telephone and TV services.  Only they have your contact details such as telephone number and postal address.

IP Address: This is a unique number assigned to your Internet connection by your ISP when you connect to the Internet.  This means if there is a problem of any kind your ISP and only your ISP can contact you to let you know.

That's the jargon out of the way :)

The Facts

  • The only way to trace any virus back to your computer is by the IP address.  However this will not identify you personally, only the ISP you are with.  Think of it like a postcode.. all that tells anyone on its own is what town you live in or near.
  • To identify you and your actual address is only possible if the request is made by a member of law enforcement, such as the Police or a solicitor, to your ISP and must be in relation to a criminal investigation for which there will be a warrant.
[Addendum: 20.12.12: I have just taken a scam call who asked to speak to me by name.  When I pointed out the only company who could legally link my IP address to me personally he hung up.  It seems they are using a - presumably stolen - database of names and telephone numbers.]

The Signs

Ways to tell immediately that the person is a scammer:
  • Empty phone line before they speak.  Generally the call connecting to one of their staff abroad.
  • Calling 'from Windows'.  Windows is a product not a company.  There are teams within Microsoft, which is the company, who work on Windows, but they have nothing to do with consumers.  Ever.
  • Calling from Microsoft.  Microsoft will never call you.  They have no interest in individuals who may or may not have viruses on their computers.  It's not their problem.
  • Wrong terminology.  Computers get viruses, worms or Trojans.  They do not get germs - as I explained to the person who made the mistake of waking me up at 0800 this morning to try and scam me.  Bad mistake - I was tired..
  • Ask what ISP you are with.  As above they cannot have obtained your telephone number anywhere other than your ISP in this instance.  They won't know who it is.. another clear indicator - as if you needed one - that it's a scam.
  • Ask how they obtained your number.  They can only have obtained it from your ISP (which we've just shown they don't know).

In a nutshell, if someone telephones you and says your computer has a virus, and they are not from your ISP they are lyingFact.

Another Fact.  Your ISP will not ring you about this kind of issue.  They have far more to do than telephone individual customers about possible viruses.  If you consider an ISP with a million customers, and only 10% had viruses that's still 100,000 people they'd have to call.  That is a pointless waste of time and resources.  ISPs don't do it for that very reason.  You may conceivably get an email from them if there is a really serious problem, but if you do I would urge you to telephone them on a number you know, not one from the email, to confirm it's not another type of scam.

I have only ever been contacted regarding a perceived problem with my Internet connection by my ISP once in the 17 years I have been online, and that was by email.  Never by phone.

One Simple Rule.  There is no direct path between your computer's Internet connection and your telephone number, therefore anyone - other than your ISP who won't - who telephones you about problems with your computer is a liar.

Monday, 10 December 2012

X-Factor - Mending the Faults

I have been watching X-Factor for several years and over that time I have become disillusioned with the format for several reasons.  It appears that this series has seen a slump in ratings, and I suspect it may be due in part to the faults I perceive in the format;

  • There should never be an even number of judges with equal power to vote.
  • Judges should never be mentors as well.
There is basic common sense behind both the above comments.

1.  The even number of judges.  In Strictly Come Dancing for example, the head judge Len Goodman has the final say.  Therefore if there is a tie at the end of a dance-off with two judges each voting for the couples, the one that Len votes for survives for another week.

Unfortunately this would not work in X-Factor in the circumstance where the head judge was also a mentor of one of the acts up for elimination as they would always vote for their own act.

This brings me to the other, and I believe fundamental, flaw in the format.

2.  Judges as Mentors.  This can never work for several reasons:

The judges will always bias their feedback in favour of their own acts, meaning their own acts think they are better than they actually are, while their competitor mentors' acts will be given the impression they are worse.

Secondly there are major issues with the vote-off.  Two acts face each other, one to be voted off.  The flaw in this is that no judge will vote for their own act to be voted off, thereby rendering the opinions of half the panel of four pointless.  The only exception is the rare occasion when one judge has two acts in the vote off.  Therefore as a general rule only two of the judges' opinions will be genuine, and if they don't agree - as often happens - the result is that the one with a lower viewer vote, often not the worst singer, ends up leaving.

There has been talk of Simon Cowell returning to the show, and this could be incorporated into one of my suggested solutions for the programme to address the above flaws.

a)  Bring in different people to mentor allowing the judges to give their unbiased opinions.  There could then be a head judge appointed so that a deadlock never occurs.  This is I admit the more expensive of the two options as there are four more wages to deal with, however it has the benefit that every judge's opinion would be unbiased.

b) If Simon Cowell is to return he could be added to the existing judging panel as a non-mentoring judge to give five in total.  This would also fix all the flaws;
  i)    The contestants would always get one unbiased opinion of their performance.
  ii)   The vote off would always have a definite result as there would always be a majority vote.
  iii)  Each week there would be three judges giving an unbiased opinion of which act should leave.

I think if either of the above options were chosen this would add a new dimension to the X-Factor and result in fairer judging, and help revive ratings.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Politics v Religion

This blog, fairly short is my take on this article

Curiously it is a point nobody mentioned.

The thrust of the argument seems to be whether politicians should be allowed to influence their decisions, and therefore policy making, based on their religious beliefs.

This in my opinion is yet another instance of public figures blurring the distinction between private and personal life.  For example several politicians have been laid low by marital indiscretions, and while personally these events will affect them, the important question in my view is 'How will it, if at all, affect their ability to do their job?'  Yes, there are cases such as Profumo where private and professional life cross; Sleeping with a woman who also shares her bed - separately - with a Soviet Intelligence officer when you are Secretary of State for War will always end in tears.

However back to the main point.  I have no issue whatsoever with any politician who holds particular religious beliefs and practices them in their private life.  I do take issue if they then incorporate them in their professional life and allow those beliefs to colour how they vote on issues which affect me.

Members of Parliament are elected by the people to represent us and our views, not their own.  Party Politics is fundamentally flawed anyway as a democratic system; the Party Whip's job is to make sure MPs vote the way the leadership tell them, which may well not be the way their constituents want them to.  If you then add an element of MPs voting according to their religious beliefs, not the wishes of their constituents or the evidence in front of them, then the system has broken down completely and may as well not be there.

I want my MP to make all his decisions based on the evidence available, taking into account my wishes as he is my representative in Parliament, not preconceived notions based on religious - or any other factor - beliefs.  Naive?  Maybe, but that is how it's supposed to work.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Jimmy Savile, the Media and Celebrity

I competed at Stoke Mandeville in the Junior BSAD [now defunct British Sports Association for the Disabled] Games between 1979 and 1986.  One of my earliest memories is of one occasion a helicopter flying over, and a buzz of excitement at a rumour that Jimmy Savile was on board.  This memory is now tarnished with the latest allegations - and with a justice system based on the precept that everyone is innocent until proven guilty we must remind ourselves that they are only allegations at this point.  I also have to admit that the allegations regarding Stoke Mandeville, whilst saddening did not in fact surprise me, as I had said only two days previously, upon recalling the helicopter 'I wonder why he would have been visiting at a time when a lot of disabled children were gathered there..'  It is unfortunate that my suspicion seems not to be without foundation if these allegations prove to be true.

However, I must at this point address another issue, that of Savile's honours.  I have seen comment demanding his knighthood be revoked, and you may imagine that as a disabled person who was a child at the time of his alleged activities I would support such a stance.  However, there are three arguments against such a move;
  • No charges have been proven as yet.
  • Savile has passed away so any such sanction would be meaningless and potentially viewed simply as vindictive and petty.
  • The reason for his knighthood was for his charity work.  He was not, for example a banker whose knighthood for services to the banking industry has subsequently proven to be misguided and revoked during his lifetime.  Jimmy Savile - regardless of any accusations concerning his private life - did carry out the charity work for which he was honoured.
Therefore I feel it would be disproportionate, and to a degree pointless, to revoke his knighthood should the allegations be proven.

[Addendum: Since posting the above it has come to my notice that provision for revoking Honours can be that the person's conduct brings the Honours system into disrepute.  On that basis I see revocation would be perfectly justified, other than my second point above vis. there being no sanction against him as he has died.]

This is however, not the first case of sexual abuse potentially involving disabled children of which I have been personally aware.  I started school at five years old and for reasons I still cannot explain 37 years later, took a dislike to one of the care staff, and gave him a wide berth.  Yet again I have to admit to a lack of surprise when, in the early 1990s, I heard he had been arrested on suspicion of sexually abusing the children at the school I had attended, over several years.  He subsequently served, if memory serves, seven years for his crimes.

I doubt there is anyone in the country who is unaware of the allegations made against Jimmy Savile, yet I am equally sure virtually nobody will have heard of the case I outlined above.  Neither case in my view is of lesser severity, and certainly not to the victims, one of whom I recall making such a fuss when he had to go to school - he was a boarder - on Monday that he was collected on Tuesday by the school minibus.  He was unable to speak so could not voice his fears.  I now know why - he was to later be confirmed as one of the victims of the abuse.

There is a simple reason for this dichotomy, and that is the media.  The media build up celebrities in the eyes of the public until they are deemed to be icons, heroes to be worshipped.  I am a Star Trek fan and one character made the observation 'She did the worst thing a person can do to another.. fail to live up to their expectations.'  This is what happens when celebrities do wrong; we expect them to obey a higher set of ideals than us mere mortals, thus when the likes of John Terry, Jimmy Savile et al fail to live up to our ideals for them, we react with outrage.

Therein lies the error.  While the media build up celebrities to be something superhuman, and we believe them, they remain what they always were.  Human.  A soccer player is a normal man, famous for having some skill at kicking a football; an actor is a normal man or woman who can deliver lines and portray characters with skill; a reality TV star is famous for... errr.. for being famous as far as I can tell (?)

The point is that while we elevate celebrities to a level which, frankly they do not deserve, we open ourselves to a stream of almost constant disappointment when they fail to meet the high standards we set for them.  It's not even necessarily their fault, they don't set the standards they are supposed to adhere to; nor for that matter do we.  We ascribe a model and standard of behaviour to the people we are told they are.  By the media.

We need to recognise that we are all human, and that nobody is special.  When we do that, and we, or at least the media, give equal exposure to the good behaviour as well as the bad behaviour of everyone we will be getting somewhere.  The celebrities will no longer feel the pressure to live up to a higher ideal that they are unable to maintain, but equally everyone else will realise they must raise their own standards of behaviour, and thus all of us celebrities included will be able to look one another in the eye knowing we all obey the same moral code.

There is a sidebar to this.  The Leveson Inquiry is currently due to report on its findings into press misconduct.  Why do the press repeatedly feel the need to intrude into the private lives of celebrities? Because it sells.  It's packaged as Public Interest.  We as the general public need to lose our adulation of celebrities and accept that they are normal human beings whose work happens to be open to public scrutiny.  Once we accept that individually they are the same as the rest of us we will lose our interest in every tiny detail of their lives.  They will attain a more peaceful existence as the media will stop hounding them, the media will be able to devote more resources to ferreting out more 'wrongdoing', and we will not have to worry that the media are probing into our lives, just on the offchance that there is a quiet news day and something we have done is salacious enough to be newsworthy.  I am not, by the way, suggesting that investigative journalism be muzzled, quite the opposite.  What I would like to see is the resources currently being wasted on stories about 'who is in bed with who' be redirected to more important stories such as corruption and misdemeanours of a more viable Public Interest.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

History v Entertainment

Now don't get me wrong;

a) My current favourite reading genre is historical fiction.
b) This is not yet another Hollywood bashing exercise (although they do necessarily play their part).

This is more about how the entertainment industry as a whole plays fast and loose with historical accuracy, to the point that sometimes it is not just inaccurate, it is plain wrong and misleading.  In historical fiction however you are at least guided by - sometimes lengthy - author's notes where they specify where they have taken license with the facts.  Movies and games do not do this.

Case 1.  Hollywood.  U571.

A US submarine discovers the code books to break the German Enigma Code wide open.  The US (again!) wins World War II single-handed.  Except it never happened.  A British warship in fact shot up a U-boat causing it to be unable to dive, and two of the British crew who boarded it found the code books onboard.  This is known fact, as two of them perished when the U-Boat captain scuttled it and they were unable to get out in time.  They could have but they chose to continue passing up the books to their shipmates outside until it was too late.

Case 2. Computer Gaming Industry.  Assassins Creed.

For those not familiar with the game it is set in Italy in either the 14th or 15th century.  You may be wondering why I'm not sure which century, and I shall explain.  The general synopsis is that a band of assassins, obviously the Creed of the title, is waging a guerilla war against the evil Pope, Rodrigo Borgia.  All fine so far.  Except the army of supporters aiding the Pope are the Templar Knights.  Here we run into a tiny problem.

i) The Templar Knights were exterminated as an organisation on the orders of Phillipe of France in 1312.
ii) Pope Alexander VI's papacy began in 1492.

Now I was never the best at mathematics in school, but I'm sure an organisation the Pope disbanded in 1312 couldn't be acting under his orders and thriving 180 years later.

[Edit: April 2017: I have been informed by a reliable source that the creators of Assassin's Creed openly state the history is not accurate, so inasmuch as they don't try to say it is they're forgiven. However the fact remains that game players in general are not the type to pay attention to that kind of disclaimer, so the point is stil valid.]


Now, the entertainment industry does get it right sometimes - Bram Stoker's Dracula was pretty faithful to the original; in James Cameron's blockbuster Titanic the ship did actually sink, apparently much to the dismay of some movie-goers but let's not go there shall we?  On the other hand that is perhaps precisely where we should be going as it is the purpose of this blog.

The entertainment industry could, if they chose to, be a force for good and for education.  For example the Lord of the Rings trilogy was broadly accurate and faithful to Tolkien's original and hopefully encouraged some who had not read the originals to give them a try (yes there were faults but that's a whole new blog - or blogs).  When entitling a movie or a game with the format '[Author's Name]'s [Book Title]' it is helpful - I would argue essential - if the content of the movie/game bearing the title at least make some attempt to be faithful to the original.  Similarly when depicting historical events there needs to be at least a solid core of accuracy;

i) Rasputin's death was one of the events leading to the Russian revolution in 1917, so how could he be depicted chasing the Princess Anastasia all over Europe after the Revolution?  Notwithstanding the fact he was a friend of the Russian Royal Family as well.  (Yes I know it's Disney but if you feed children rubbish at an early age it's harder to feed them good stuff later on.)

ii) H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds has been particularly, and repeatedly badly maligned in this respect.  With the original story being based in late Victorian England - a time when it was believed that Mars held life - it is puzzling to find the story depicted as 1950s or early 21st century America - the latter with none of the original characters surviving.

Similarly if you set a movie/game within a certain time period there ought to be at least some attention paid to accuracy of the period.

I am aware that I may be coming over as a history/literature purist and while I make no bones about the fact that I do much prefer accuracy in both, that is not the main gripe I have.  My gripe is simply this.  On one occasion I was conversing with someone from America regarding World War II and he told me, with some confidence, that Germany attacked Pearl Harbor.  Now I know many Americans and because of that I know this level of ignorance of history is not universal, nor for that matter is it confined to America.  However unless the entertainment industry in its' entirety put more effort into accuracy in their output, I fear the knowledge of history of many people will be lost among the fiction fed to them on a daily basis.

I leave you with this - often misquoted - observation:

'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it'

George Santayana (1863-1952)

and a question:  Do you know where the Manic Street Preachers' lyrics 'If you tolerate this, then your children will be next' originated? No prize just an interesting snippet.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

How to make a Cabinet, and other issues..

No I haven't gone mad - well OK not any more than I was originally anyway - and this has nothing to do with DIY.  It's more to do with our system of politics in the UK.

As all readers from the UK will be aware we recently had a reorganisation of the Prime Minister's closest advisors, collectively known as the Cabinet - chief advisors are the Cabinet Office Ministers, aka Secretaries of State, for Education/Health/Home Office/Foreign Office etc.  What may not be known to readers outside the UK is that none of these post holders need have any expertise in their given post whatsoever.  While it is (we fondly hope) advisable to have a Chancellor of the Exchequer - responsible for economic and budgetary policy - who has economic experience and qualifications, it is not a requirement for example that the Minister for the Armed Forces have served in any of them, or for the Health Minister to be medically qualified - for example an ex-Chairman of the British Medical Council.

Returning to the recent reshuffle - as the reorganising of the Cabinet is known, it is commonplace for a Prime Minister to periodically reappoint people to different posts - most often midway through a term of office, but often too if an administration is in difficulty.  In past times reshuffles during such times have been referred to as 'rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic' and this has occasionally proven to be the case.  In the UK therefore we can find ourselves in a position whereby the Prime Minister's chief advisor on (for example) Education may previously have served as advisor on Health, the Armed Forces or Transport etc.  Nobody can be an expert on such diverse topics.  Contrast this with the USA where the President's advisors are, for example, retired generals, or ex-CIA Directors - in other words people with a proven track record in the area in which they advise.

This is not the only problem however with the Mother of all Parliaments.  Government, broadly speaking contains three main branches; Executive;  Legislative; Judiciary.  While intended to be totally separate thus avoiding any conflict of interest or undue power vested in a single person, this is not the case.  The Executive in the UK consists of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet.  The Legislative consists of the Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament, more commonly referred to as the House of Commons and the House of Lords.  Very broadly speaking they perform the same function as the USA's Senate and House of Representatives.  Lastly the Legislative branch, in the UK enshrined in the persons of the Law Lords, senior judges and legal experts.

However, all is not as it should be.  Members of the Prime Minister's Cabinet - indeed Prime Ministers themselves - are elected members of Parliament, and are thus able to sit, and vote, on matters arising in the House of Commons.  Thus the Executive branch is inextricably linked to the Legislative, and those proposing policy are able to directly influence debate on its' passing.  Furthermore Lords are able to sit on the Cabinet - although I believe they must give up their seat in the House of Lords to do so (if any reader knows this for certain I would appreciate confirmation).  The Law Lords have no such restriction however, and thus those responsible for enacting new legislation sit in the House of Lords able to affect debate on legislative proposals, and again the Legislative branch is inextricably linked to the Judiciary.

It's all a bit of a mess really, with no single branch of government able to act in isolation, or without influence, from the other two.  The current administration has said they will bring in government reforms, however, as much as both these elements needs to be corrected I cannot see it happening any time soon.

Disability in Sport and at Work

The following was originally written as part of a project dealing with sport and disability.  With the recent Paralympics still fresh in everyone's minds it seems a good time to bring it to a wider audience.  Also the thought occurs that the arguments put forward for sport are equally true for employment too, bearing in mind the government's recent closure of many Remploy factories.
Generally speaking, human beings become disabled in three main ways;
  • From birth, with a consistent, unchanging disability.
  • From birth, with a degenerative condition.
  • Through trauma later in life.
In any demographic it is important not to generalise, however there will always be those who - whether born with their disability or who have it thrust on them through trauma, have varying degrees of self-confidence and strength of character.  Participative sport - especially that of a team based nature - and employment, have an important part to play in the recovery both mentally and physically of the individuals concerned.
It is self evident that those who have been victims of a recent trauma, and to a lesser extent those whose degenerative condition has advanced to a debilitating level, are likely to feel disenfranchised from the rest of society, as unlike those born with a disability it is not their normal condition.  One who is born with a permanent condition has no recollection of, for example, being able to walk and thus is unable to miss it and treats the current status quo as normal, which for them personally it is.
Enter sport and employment into the equation.  It has become increasingly commonplace to involve a degree of sport in the rehabilitation of trauma victims to aid their physical recovery.  However, whether the participant has become recently disabled or has been for many years, the introduction of sport into their lives can have a marked effect beyond that of the merely physical.  Equally true is the (re) introduction of employment to their lives.
One study in particular highlights the importance of sport for the disabled in several areas, namely;
(a) performance accomplishments and functional efficiency
(b) perceived self-efficacy
(c) self-concept and self-esteem
(d) personality disorders, mood states and locus of control
(e) activity level and social acceptance.
All the above elements will be affected to a greater or lesser degree by the individual's participation in competitive sport, however it is likely that b, c and particularly e will benefit specifically from team based activities.  Again engagement in employment tasks will furnish many of the same benefits. 
These issues and benefits hold true for all three of the original categories; those born with a permanent disability; degenerative; or those victim of a trauma. 
Returning to the areas of importance though; firstly the person will, simply through their involvement in the activity gain increasingly in performance accomplishments, as through time they will become more and more proficient in the skills required to perform the tasks required.  Their increased activity will lend a natural increased functional efficiency to their daily lives; they may find for example an increase in their hand-eye coordination, dexterity or in their stamina.
This will lead naturally to a perceived self-efficacy as they become aware that they are neither constrained, nor defined, by their disability, and that in fact it has opened up possibilities to them which may otherwise never have been available.  That is not to say the individual will embrace their disability - that is perhaps too strong a term - but their acceptance of their circumstances - whether recently altered or lifelong - is likely to be eased by the realisation that their life is not devoid of purpose due to their disability, rather it is an opportunity or challenge to be grasped and used to best advantage.
It is self evident that anyone, disabled or otherwise, who takes up a new interest - competitive sport or otherwise - will increase their activity level, whether it is Family History and they have to spend time visiting the library etc, or in more active pursuits such as cycling for pleasure.  This increased activity in itself will lead to an overall increase in the individual's level of fitness and general health.  Similarly, disabled or otherwise if one becomes involved in any activity outside the home there is a natural consequence that they will come into contact with others engaged in similar activities, and thus their social circle will increase. 
This is particularly the case both in participative sport and employment, where the individual concerned, even in single competitor events or tasks, will both train alongside and compete against/work with, others involved in the same sport/activity.  This is multiplied of course by the size of the team involved, and will introduce an element of cooperation into the picture.
The greatest element in sport and employment though will be the social element.  As proficiency grows the individual will find a greater feeling of self-esteem with the realisation that there is a trust between them and the other team members, and a reliance on them to fulfil their tasks toward the common goal of winning at the event.  Able-bodied people who are not disabled socialise outside their sport and/or workplace, and the disabled are no different in this respect; they too will enjoy each others' company outside the environment in which they work or play as well as the comradeship on it.
An extension of this social element is the probability of crossing what may to some be perceived as a boundary between those who are disabled and those not.  Particularly in a team which may mix those with congenital conditions and trauma victims, the latter will no doubt have friends and relatives who are not disabled who may be involved in any social gatherings; birthday parties; christenings; weddings.  This will lead naturally to those who may not have mixed socially with those who are not disabled - since their disability has been an issue for them - and afford both sides to forge new links of understanding, once more imbuing the disabled person with a feeling of greater self-worth and belonging.
The feeling of belonging, and more importantly of acceptance by others for who they are, is a key element of why team activities - sporting or employment - in particular are a valuable tool or resource for those involved in the rehabilitation of trauma victims and for those involved perhaps in a less medical role such as those who may run day-care centres.  They will be able to pinpoint those who attend their facilities who appear less inclined to engage with other visitors or members and be able to give guidance towards such activities that will aid the individual in achieving greater social awareness and involvement.
In summary then, irrespective of the genesis of the individual's current circumstances, there are those who will either find the transition back to their previous involvement in society difficult, or conversely have never had that involvement will find the prospect daunting.  Sports and employment can in a very real sense act as a catalyst to the process of them (re)engaging in society and providing a true quality of life.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Spitfire v Hurricane

The question of which is the better aircraft is one that has been bandied about ever since the two were designed in the late 1930s.  Before the reader consigns this blog to the unread pile thinking 'More of the same' I will dispense with any further preamble and state that, rather than immediately state a preference, I think the wrong question is being asked.  Wrong in the sense that one side of the discussion seem to be answering one question, whilst the opposing side are providing answers to what seems to be a different question.  Therefore before I go any further I'd like to clarify both questions and attempt to answer them.

At this juncture I would also like to advise the reader that I am 41, a fulltime wheelchair user, and have never piloted an aircraft in my life.  I am not a professional historian, thus the source material I base the following statements and conclusions on are the works of those who are professional historians, such as Leo McKinstry, Len Deighton, Patrick Bishop as well as those who actually flew the aircraft; Peter Townsend, Pierre Clostermann, Paul Richey et al.  I will not be smothering the following in references for one simple reason; If the reader has got this far (to a degree if they have been interested enough to click on the link to this blog) I am assuming they have a similar knowledge base to myself - if not greater.  They will therefore be familiar with all the literature on the subject, and indeed may have authored some themselves.  I do however have a lifelong interest in aviation, and history, the two marrying quite successfully in my resulting interest in aviation history and therefore the RAF operations in WWII.  My profession is in IT and I hope to bring the logic and analysis I have gleaned from that field to the discussion.

Now to specifics:  The first question 'Which is the better aircraft?' would seem to be simple to answer, assuming we judge 'better' in terms of aesthetics, performance, easy of handling etc.  In those terms we can quite simply compare the Spitfire and Hurricane's performance and say the former is 30 mph faster than the latter, it has cleaner lines and pilots who flew it say it was a dream to fly.  Detractors will point to issues such as the difficulty in taxying due to the long nose necessitating 'fishtailing' the aircraft on the ground as the immediate view ahead was obscured.  However this is not a flying issue, and we are talking about an aircraft.  Thus we could from this conclude that the Spitfire is the better aircraft.  Incidentally throughout this blog I will be using the present tense as flying examples of both aircraft still exist, past tense obviously when referring to wartime events.

In many discussions I have read it seems to me that Spitfire pilots are answering this question.

We now come to the second question, the one which I believe the Hurricane pilots are answering, and to answer this I will be going into the issues in much greater depth.  This question is 'Which was the better warplane?'

I would first like to look at the designers of each in brief.  At the outset I will state categorically that both R J Mitchell and Sidney Camm were among the best of their generation, and alongside the likes of Roy Chadwick, Barnes Wallis et al formed the bedrock of British engineering which helped see us to victory in the war.  Therefore no slight of any kind is intended towards either in the following, and if any is inferred by the reader it is accidental and I offer now my apologies.

Let us start by looking at the problem they were set.  Specification F.7/36 produced by the Air Ministry.  Without any actual knowledge I am going to suggest what seems logical given the subject, that this was Fighter specification no. 7 produced in 1936.  A minor point it may seem but one which may become relevant as you will see.  The outline of the brief was to produce a monoplane single seat aircraft 'capable of carrying eight machineguns and a top speed in excess of 300mph'.

R J Mitchell's pedigree was in high performance aircraft - most notably the Supermarine seaplanes which won the Schneider Cup trophy three times in a row for Great Britain thus allowing us to keep the trophy.  Upon release of the above specification he set to work and ultimately produced the Spitfire.  I mention his pedigree in design as it is germane to the discussion, and I think it is logical that he may have brought all his experience to bear producing a high performance aircraft which could carry guns.  Therefore the design emphasis was on performance.

Sidney Camm's design heritage stretched back to WWI in having a hand in designing some of Britain's first fighter aircraft which served in the RFC.  In the inter-war years he continued in this vein.  Thus when specification F.7/36 was released he set upon it bringing all his experience to bear.  However in his case in contrast to R J Mitchell, I think it is likely he prioritised in a different manner, seeing it as a question of 'How do I fly eight machineguns at 300+ mph on a single seater aircraft to the target?'

Thus by having two entirely different ethos' as their basis both designers came up with solutions which, while superficially similar, were in concept markedly different.  I think this is encapsulated in the view of one pilot who said 'The Spitfire was a racing car, the Hurricane was a tank, and I know which I'd prefer to go to war in'.  The pilot in question was, as you may have guessed, a Hurricane pilot.  However I think the point is made quite succinctly.

In terms of 'fitness for purpose' there can be no disagreement that both aircraft performed their function superlatively well, no better illustration can be seen of this than the Battle of Britain in 1940.  Some may argue that the Hurricane shot down more German aircraft, however I think I am right in saying that if you factor in the numbers of each type in service at the time, the number of victories was proportionally almost identical (I think about 60% of fighters were Hurricanes, and that's about the same proportion of victories attributed to them).

Another factor is in the more mundane, yet vital, area of maintenance.  The Spitfire was (and is) a more advanced and complicated aircraft to build, thus expending more of the scarce resources available to wartime Britain.  This however gave it the edge in performance versus the Hurricane.  However once constructed it is self-evident they would need maintenance, not least of which would involve refuelling and re-arming between sorties.  In this I submit that the Hurricane had the edge not least in two basic areas; to rearm the guns of a Spitfire involved four panels on each wing, these being on the top and bottom taking valuable time.  The Hurricane by contrast only required one panel per wing to be opened, on the underside of the wing.  As it transpired in the heady days of 1940 this would come to be a vital issue.  At some point of course aircraft would need to be transported to an external base for repair, this of course being carried out by road.  With the Spitfire this necessitated transporting the wings and fuselage on lorries to the repair establishment.  In the case of the Hurricane it was a different matter entirely.  The Spitfire's undercarriage was mounted on the wings, a consequence of which was that removal of the wings meant the fuselage had to be transported as a static weight.  By contrast the Hurricane's undercarriage was mounted on the fuselage and therefore the wings could be removed and placed on a lorry, and then the fuselage with undercarriage deployed could simply be towed behind it, a much simpler and faster process.

A brief segue is, I think due at this point.  The Russians requested assistance from Britain in the form of Spitfires, yet what the British supplied was a squadron of Hurricanes.  Initially disappointed by this, when Spitfires later became available to be supplied to them, the Russians apparently responded that they would actually like more Hurricanes.  The thought occurs that this may be due to the simplicity of the Hurricane mirroring the Russian design philosophy which dictated - and to an extent still does - function over form.  They prized capacity to fulfil the function higher than aesthetics.  Also it is likely that the more rugged Hurricane fared better in the harsh Russian climate than the Spitfire would have.  That would seem to bear out the maintenance issue.  Added to that the preference of Hurricanes in the, albeit brief, Norwegian campaign with their greater rough airfield capability and the Hawker aircraft seems to edge ahead on ruggedness.

Survivability is a key component of a fighter aircraft.  The WWII ace Peter Townsend has said 'The Hurricane was composed almost entirely of non-essential components.. I know because I've had all of them shot off'.  This suggests that the Hurricane, due to its' simpler and more rugged construction, was better able to soak up battle damage than the Spitfire.

I mentioned earlier that the Spitfire clearly wins on performance, however in the context of combat flying that is not entirely true.  In the era of propeller driven aircraft, combat between aircraft was not the modern concept of 'Fire and Forget' missiles, but the much harder to master machine-guns.  In this the aircraft had to be pointed at the target whilst firing the guns and crucially stay on target for the duration of the burst.  Obviously when I say 'on target' I mean 'in a position where the burst of fire will hit the target' which in terms of deflection meant shooting slightly ahead of the target.  One failing of the Spitfire in this was the positioning of the machine guns on the wings.  On the Hurricane wing they were evenly spaced in a lock of four on each wing; however on the Spitfire they were unevenly spaced, and this combined with the thinner wing gave rise to a wider spread of bullets, itself coining the phrase 'a spray of bullets' or 'spraying the target.

A core requirement of the tactic of keeping the firing point on target was the ability to turn as tight as possible, either to escape an aircraft behind you or to get into the right position to shoot an aircraft turning ahead of you.  It is a known fact that the Hurricane was capable of turning tighter than either the Spitfire or its' main adversary in the initial stages of the war, the Messerschmitt bf109.  Thus in this respect it was more suited to the requirements of the combat flying of the day.  The argument that the Spitfire is 30mph faster in a straight line than the Hurricane becomes a moot point.

There has also been much made of longevity of each type.  By the end of the war the Hurricane had been superseded by the Tempest and the Typhoon, whereas the Spitfire continued on in service into the early 1950s.  Proponents of the Spitfire point to this as proof of its' being superior.  However, there is a counter to this argument.

As we know, regrettably R J Mitchell died before his creation even entered service with the RAF, much less before it saw active service in the war.  In some ways I think it does him a disservice to suggest that in the next almost two decades that he would not have produced better more advanced designs, building on the success of the Spitfire.  Rather than simply produce a stream of modifications to an already extant design, it is my belief that an innovator of the calibre and quality of R J Mitchell would have looked at what other countries - most notably Germany of course - were doing and come up with better ideas of his own.  In his absence however it would appear that nobody designed a complete new airframe being content to continually upgrade the existing design.  A contemporary example of this is Apple; since the death of the driving force behind Apple's innovation, Steve Jobs, they seem to have been content to tinker with existing designs rather than create anything completely new.

At Hawker, Sidney Camm does not seem to have taken the same approach and his course of action is one which I think R J Mitchell would also have taken had he lived to see it through.  While the Spitfire started life as a fighter and - with a minor segue into aerial photographic reconnaissance - ended its' life as a fighter, the Hurricane saw its' path take varying guises; fighter, fighter-bomber, tank-buster, a ground attack role with rockets, and even in use protecting merchant shipping convoys as a catapult launched fighter.  I have excluded 'carrier borne fighter' from both as I am not aware of any instances where either type were specifically borne aboard aircraft carriers for the specific purpose of defending the fleet (The Seafire although derivative being a different aircraft to the Spitfire).  Thus it proved not only more than adequate in its' original role. but uniquely adaptable and versatile for other uses.  However Camm saw what was happening in military aviation and could see when the Hurricane had reached the end of its' life-cycle, at which point he replaced it with the Typhoon and Tempest to keep pace with the enemy's progress.  In Leo McKinstry's excellent 'Hurricane' he points out that Sidney Camm had a hand in the Hawker-Siddley Harrier, and I have little doubt that R J Mitchell would have similarly been at the forefront of aviation innovation for decades to come.

Finally, I do not want this blog to read as though I prefer one aircraft over the other, but as an even-handed appraisal of the two.  In summary I do think the Spitfire is a better aircraft, but for combat purposes - after all was the whole purpose of specification F.7/36 was to design a fighter aircraft - I think the Hurricane edges it.

Lastly this is not related to performance or indeed how good each aircraft type is in a particular context.  It is related to the justification for the Air Ministry initially ordering twice as many Hurricanes as Spitfires.  Britain being an island relied on imports for some materials, while for others supply was very much finite, as was labour.  The Hurricane took 5000 hours to construct, the Spitfire 13000, and in Germany the Messerschmitt bf109 a mere 4000.  Given that in practice the Spitfire and Hurricane were approximately equal in number of aircraft they shot down in their first real test - The Battle of Britain - I do wonder at the thought processes which accepted an aircraft - the Spitfire - which took almost three times as long to build, with a consequential increase in cost and delay in production.  This at a time when both money and resources were at a premium.  Surely cost and simplicity shoud have been part of the brief?  Curious.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Call Me Len..

Pronunciation.  Some people can't even agree how to pronounce it.  Oh the irony!  :)

However, for those of us who live in countries that at least in part do not speak English, pronunciation can be a total nightmare.  Not that we are perfect either of course - I have worked 14 years in jobs where telephone communication was a core element, and yet I am quite capable of dropping the ball myself.  A case in point; working in a callcentre and asked the caller for his postcode which he dutifully gave.  Up pops his record and using the company convention I attempted to greet him as Mr....  Unfortunately the gentleman was of Polish descent and I paused slightly before attempting it.  You could almost hear the long-suffering, but good-natured, tone in his voice when he interrupted my brief thoughts with 'Call me Len' in a kindly voice.  The call proceeded very well with our mutual understanding.

However, it's not a new problem by any stretch of the imagination.  In 1978 there was an animated version of The Lord Of The Rings.  With the wealth of detail provided by Tolkien including language guides for his mythical races you'd have thought it impossible to drop the ball.  Not so.  From calling Saruman 'Aruman' - unforgivable to drop an entire letter! - to referring to Sauron as Soreon (sic) when the correct pronunciation as per the Peter Jackson movies being faithful to Tolkien is Sowron (sic).  Not that Jackson was perfect - Galadriel's pronunciation of Earandil was a country mile off.  But these could be excused by saying they are fictional anyway and not offending real people.

For many years I have had an avid interest in various eras in history, and have been broadly aware of the reputation of the Borgias, and the main family members.  Throughout this time I have always heard Cesare and Lucrezia pronounced as Sayzar and Loocreesha.  It came therefore as some surprise to hear them in the recent television epic The Borgias referred to with the correct Spanish pronunciations of Chezaree and Loocretzeeuh.  On reflection being a motorsports fan I should have realised at least one of them was wrong - the name Andrea de Cesaris is well-known to me as 'de Chezaris' (sic) so I ought to have known better.

In sport the problem is quite pronounced.  Take the sport of tennis which is televised often, and frequently uses commentators from more than one country - the UK, America and Australia for example.  Then give these disparate countries the same name to pronounce.

Novak Djokavic.

For the viewer - well me personally and I know I am not alone - it can be quite jarring to hear two commentators on the same match refer to the same player as Jokeavitch and Jockavitch.  Is it really so hard for someone to ask the player himself 'How do you pronounce your name properly?' and then tell the rest?  His is by no means the only example.

Tennis is not alone.  Rugby is another case in point - the stadium Parc Y Scarlets is not called Parky Scarlets.  It is Welsh and correctly pronounced Park Uh Scarlets.  Welsh as an entirely phonetic language should be easy - if those concerned can be bothered to learn the pronunciation, and I'm sure the Irish and other nations feel the same.  On which note - Connaught.  I've heard three different pronunciations, sometimes in the same conversation!  Connort, ConnaCHt and Connakt.  Someone please tell them which one is right!

Newsreaders are another culprit.  I well remember listening to election news coverage on Channel Four in the UK.  The National Party of Wales is called Plaid Cymru.  Now remembering what I said about Welsh being entirely phonetic, it is not ever pronounced 'Played Kimroo'!  It is Pl-eye-d Kumree (sic).  That one actually got an email of complaint.

To those concerned with public presentations of any kind; TV presenters, Newsreaders, Actors, Sports Commentators et al, a plea.  Do your homework on pronunciation.  It is not only jarring to the ear, it can be quite insulting when you seem to be at pains to pronounce some things correctly and then give the impression that others are not important and you can't be bothered.

Thank you.