Thursday, April 30, 2009

What has 80 steel wheels and flies?

I've decided that I don't want to move to Lewisham any time soon. For various reasons that are too boring to go into I found myself standing around on the platform at Lewisham station this evening, waiting for a train for 20 minutes. The platforms at lewisham have an interesting feature that I'm sure not many stations have-- they're built over a river (The wonderfully named River Quaggy). The problem with this oddity, I learned tonight, is that clouds of little biting insects appear from the riverbed in the evening. I was standing there for what felt like hours, just swatting these little bugs as they landed on my book, face, ears, and eyelids, as well as getting in my hair.

Eventually the train arrived. It came whoosing down the platform (I was standing about halfway down) at about 15mph and I moved towards the edge of the platform (still behind the yellow line) in ancitipation of the scrum that was undoubtedly about to kick off when the doors opened.

When trains go past at a reasonable speed, they push a sort of air cushion in front of them which can smush you backwards from the edge of the platform. Today that cushion of air was followed by more than just a train. Namely the smoke-thick cloud of little biting insects that were caught in the vorticies around the drivers cab. As it went past me I got a faceful of little bugs. Some of them went in my mouth, others up my nose, in my ears, hair, eyes. It wasn't very nice. I spent the rest of my journey home squishing the bugs that were crawling out of my hair and clothes.

I'm still picking them out of my hair. No house in lewisham for me, even if it is monster cheap and gold-plated or something.


Monday, April 27, 2009


Today is Mary Wollstonecraft's 250th birthday, or at least it would be if she wasn't dead, but that sort of goes with the territory once you get over the age of 100. Not that she made it that far, sadly. Appropriately I've spent my day today writing and reading about the home schooling movement in the United States.

This was a rather eye-opening exercise for me. In the UK home schooling is largely the preserve of ultra-left-wing hairy types who think that even montessori schools are too restrictive, pushy parents of precocious oddballs, and parents whose children have severe mental or physical disabilities which preclude easy integration into the public school system. Only around 15,000 children are educated at home, and this education is closely monitored by education officials to check that it meets with national curriculum standards.

In the US, however, it seems that homeschooling is the preserve of a rather different demographic. A quick perusal of the Department of Education's statistics shows that 72 percent of parents who homeschool their children are motivated by relgious beliefs, and 30 percent of parents polled gave religious beliefs as the primary motivation behind their decision to homeschool their children. Also, rather more children are homeschooled in the US than in the UK -- around 1.1 million in total, or 2.2 percent of the school-age population.

I'm pretty ignorant when it comes to the current state of educational research on the merits of homeschooling in general, so I don't feel able to make any broad sweeping statements about the validity of the practice in general (although I'd really like to). When it comes to the religious homeschoolers though, it's pretty hard to remain neutral on the subject. You see, they go into great detail about the motivations behind their decision to homeschool their children. These reasons range from the merely bigoted to outright batshit insane. Some talk about how high schools are hotbeds of promiscuity and sodomy (where children are told that gay men aren't demons in disguise!), while others rant about crypto muslims, communist conspiracies, and mind-control flouride in the drinking water.

Behind all the rants about the state of the public school system there is one overriding concern that comes up again and again. These people are concerned about their children being subject to influences beyond their control, or worse still, having their ideas contradicted. These children are educated entirely within the bounds of their parents' beliefs, entertained only by media they approve, and play only with the children of other, similarly megalomaniacal, parents. By homeschooling they hope to isolate their children from any and all influences not under their complete control; indoctrinating them with their own warped perspective on the world. In fact, for people so vehemently opposed to cloning, they seem remarkably intent on making identical copies of themselves.

If you doubt the worrying levels of bonkers of which I speak, watch this video or read some of the things on this website. The US has a Marxist education system apparently. Funny that none of my American friends mentioned this...


To go back to Mary Wollstonecraft, here's a little chunk from her 1791 masterwork A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which discusses far more than just women's rights. Here's what she had to say on homeschooling --

The good effects resulting from attention to private education will ever be very confined, and the parent who really puts his own hand to the plow, will always, in some degree be disappointed, till education becomes a grand national concern. A man cannot retire into a desert with his child, and if he did, he could not bring himself back to childhood, and become the proper friend and play-fellow of an infant or youth. And when children are confined to the society of men and women, they very soon acquire that kind of premature manhood which stops the growth of every vigorous power of mind or body. In order to open their faculties they should be excited to think for themselves; and this can only be done by mixing a number of children together, and making them jointly pursue the same objects.

A child very soon contracts a benumbing indolence of mind, which he has seldom sufficient vigour to shake off, when he only asks a question instead of seeking for information, and then relies implicitly on the answer he receives. With his equals in age this could never be the case, and the subjects of inquiry, though they might be influenced, would not be entirely under the direction of men, who frequently damp, if not destroy abilities, by bringing them forward too hastily: and too hastily they will infallibly be brought forward, if the child could be confined to the society of a man, however sagacious that man may be.

Besides, in youth the seeds of every affection should be sown, and the respectful regard, which is felt for a parent, is very different from the social affections that are to constitute the happiness of life as it advances. Of these, equality is the basis, and an intercourse of sentiments unclogged by that observant seriousness which prevents disputation, though it may not inforce submission. Let a child have ever such an affection for his parent, he will always languish to play and chat with children; and the very respect he entertains, for filial esteem always has a dash of fear mixed with it, will, if it do not teach him cunning, at least prevent him from pouring out the little secrets which first open the heart to friendship and confidence, gradually leading to more expansive benevolence. Added to this, he will never acquire that frank ingenuousness of behaviour, which young people can only attain by being frequently in society, where they dare to speak what they think; neither afraid of being reproved for their presumption, nor laughed at for their folly.

-- Vindication of the rights of Woman, Chapter 12: "On National Education"

If I ever invent a time machine I'm sending a decent obstetrician and a midwife back to 1797 right away.


Monday, April 06, 2009



I've said before that one of the great strengths of the United States is, although as I mentioned we have a very large Christian population, we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation.
--Barack Obama, Address to the Turkish Parliament, 2009

As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen.
--Joel Barlow, Article 11 of The Treaty of Tripoli, 1797

If the second quote is written out in full, however, you have to include the following sentence, that forms the second half of article 11, which goes thusly:

and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

The history, she burns!


I'm sure that I'm by no means the first to raise this similarity, in fact, I expect it was probably intended, so I'm not going to bother to editorialize on what it might signify, as I'm sure other, more articulate, people have done so already.

Thursday, April 02, 2009


This post is going to be one of those nerdy, thinky ones that isn't really interesting in the least, I'm afraid. Feel free to ignore it, I just needed to get it out of my head, in case I started talking about this stuff in a social setting.

I've been off sick for the last two days, spending my days coughing and trying to avoid watching daytime television. I've been doing a probably unhealthy amount of Wikpedia surfing in order to pass the time and, as there wasn't anything better to do, I have been reading about nerdy things -- technology, inventions, and other general all-purpose "boys' stuff". I spent most of this afternoon indulging my strange fascination with things that got developed, tested, even prepared for full scale production, but weren't ever actually used.

Because of their technical complexity, massive cost, and the public accountability of the people footing the bill, the demise of unwanted military hardware projects are usually the most interesting examples of this, and the ones covered in the most detail by the nerds of wikipedia.

Take, for example, the RAH-66 Commanche. In 1982 the US Army started soliciting proposals for a new armed reconnaissance helicopter, various companies put foward bids and the development of a new aircraft started. It was to have all the bells and whistles you could possibly think of -- sensors and avionics equipment that made it more intelligent than most soldiers, a radar-reflecting body made from composite materials, and an engine that was designed to be much quieter than other helicopters. It made its first flight in the mid-1990s and, after numerous delays, was on track to begin production in about 2004. Unfortunately, by the time the millenium rolled around the US army had learned two things -- 1. unmanned drones are pretty good at reconnaissance and 2. even the most expensive and advanced helicopters can be knocked out of the sky by a nutter with a crusty old soviet-made Rocket launcher. After costing around seven billion dollars of government money, the project was quietly dropped in 2004. It was undoubtedly a cool piece of kit, in a murderous sort of way, but just like the Saunders-Roe Princess, the world moved on before it could be finished.

The strange internal politics and technological one-upmanship of the different branches of the US armed forces means that there's no shortage of projects like this, such as the AH-56 Cheyenne (which was a strange halfway house between a helicopter and a plane, designed to avoid various regulations about what aircraft the army was allowed to operate, that didn't really work as well as either) or, well, pretty much anything in this wikipedia category.

I guess I find this sort of thing interesting because these things were developed by a huge team of engineers, scientists, and designers to fulfill a specific role, and nobody ever really got to find out whether they would have worked or not. Imagine spending years and years working on something only to find that you'll never get to know if any of your cool ideas or late-night moments of inspiration worked.