Thursday, 19 February 2009

Hello there!

Sorry I've not posted in a while - other projects have taken my focus away. There's loads of stuff archived, though, so have a poke around. It's not like they're going out of date (except the parts that are).

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

WRONG: Chuck Yeager was the first man to break the sound barrier

In 1947, the 24-year-old test pilot Chalmers “Slick” Godlin didn’t become the first pilot to break the sound barrier. Though slated to be the first in the field, he – not unreasonably – wanted $150,000 in hazard pay from the Bell Aircraft Corporation if he was going to travel at 800 mph in a plane that had every chance of falling apart in mid-air. The US government took over the project instead and gave the job to Chuck Yeager, who, at regular US Air Force pay, came a lot cheaper than Godlin.

There is evidence, however, to show that another pilot, George Welch, broke the sound barrier a couple of weeks before Yeager. Flying an F-86 at the same air base as Yeager’s experimental X-1, Welch was under strict instructions not to break the sound barrier in his aircraft before the X-1. He dived from 35,000 feet, however, and ground crews reported hearing a sonic boom. As it was in a gravity-assisted dive, rather than on the level, Yeager is in the record books and Welch is forgotten.

In 1964, NASA and the Federal Aviation Authority decided to further their knowledge of sonic booms by conducting a series of tests in Oklahoma called – honestly – Operation Bongo II. Specifically, they generated eight sonic booms a day, beginning at 7am, for a period of six months. Five years and 15,000 complaints later, the government lost a class action lawsuit brought by the people of Oklahoma City.

If you’re a dominatrix or a cowboy, or are close friends with one, you’ve probably experienced a sonic boom for yourself, albeit at a small scale – the crack of a whip is caused by the tip moving at supersonic speed.

Monday, 27 October 2008

WRONG: Red, blue and yellow are the primary colours

At school, you were probably taught in art classes that the primary colours – the ones you use to mix all other colours – were red, blue and yellow. Sorry to break this to you, but your teacher wasn’t telling the truth.

Primary colours, the building-block hues, aren’t a property of light itself but a consequence of the way our eyes work. Cells in the retina respond to red, green and blue; accordingly, everything we can see is made up of combinations of red, green and blue light. (Some animals have a fourth type of cell that gives them a fourth primary colour, probably close to the ultraviolet range. Bees can’t see red, but they can see “bee purple”, which isn’t purple at all, but a combination of yellow and ultra-violet. All this begs the question of why bees don’t attend more raves.)

TVs work on this principle. Shine a red light and a green light together, for example, and you’ll see yellow where they overlap. Add blue and you’ll get white where all three combine.

So much for light. Now back to art lessons, or the “subtractive” system of colour mixing. In the subtractive system, you don’t add light to make new colours, but start with white then filter it. White light bouncing off red paint appears red because all other wavelengths have been absorbed by the paint. That’s why black surfaces get hot in the sun, because they absorb much of the light, then transmit some of that energy as heat.

Mix two paints together and the effect will always be darker than its constituents, because even fewer wavelengths will make it through the double filter. The three primary colours of the subtractive system (the “primary pigments”) are cyan, magenta and yellow (ie they are colours that can’t be made by mixing other colours, and together make up all other colours). Add cyan to magenta and you get blue. Magenta and yellow make red, and yellow and cyan make green. Most “full-colour” printing is composed of four translucent layers – C, M, Y and K (black). The K layer is only necessary because so much of the average page is type and because no one’s yet synthesised perfect primary inks.

The only reason Miss Johnson gave you red and blue with your yellow paints in art class was that they’re a lot cheaper to produce than cyan and magenta, and while it seems obvious that red and yellow should make orange, it’s less immediately apparent that magenta and yellow will make red.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

WRONG: Judges have to wear wigs and gowns

Court dress, like all aspects of the law, is governed by ancient and complicated traditions. In the case of wigs and gowns, it dates back to the 17th century, when every gentlemen worth the name owned enough wigs and face-paint to shame a transvestite. The make-up, based on toxic lead oxide, actually caused hair loss, making wigs as much a necessity as a fashion statement. A wealthy nobleman wouldn’t have been seen dead without his Full-Bottomed periwig or a dildo (don’t get excited, a “dildo” was the name for a curly, detachable pigtail).

The rules for what judges should wear were codified officially in the Judges’ Rules of 1635.

According to Thomas Woodcock in his exhaustive history Legal Habits, the fashion for wigs was dying out in other professions by the 19th century, but the Full-Bottomed and Tie wigs remained in use by judges and barristers respectively (in England and Wales – the uniform and general legal tradition are slightly different in Scotland). The law moves very slowly, and is, by nature, conservative; one 19th-century judge, according to Woodcock, refused to recognise his own son at the bar because he was wearing a new style of wig.

Small alterations to the dress code have been introduced by daring judges over the years since the Rules were published, but more substantial changes only took place on the creation of new courts, such when the Courts of Chancery, the Admiralty, Probate and Matrimonial Causes were combined to form the High Court in 1873-5[2]. Even then, the changes tended to affect only the colour and cut of gown.

Today, judges are not, in fact, obliged to wear the wig and gown. In hot weather, or when children are on trial or acting as witnesses (and are likely to be intimidated), court dress may be dispensed with at the judge’s discretion.

The Lord Chancellor commissioned a report on the possibility of radically changing court dress in 2003[3], but its findings were not acted upon. It seems the gravitas conveyed by the historical costume (embodying as it does centuries of tradition) aren’t considered worth sacrificing simply for modernisation’s sake. All societies make a distinction between “sacred” and “profane” contexts, with costume historically acting as a key indication of the difference between the two. If you doubt its significance, ask yourself this: does the Pope wear a funny hat?

Thursday, 16 October 2008

WRONG: Germany started World War One

Germany didn’t start the war, and despite what Baldrick would have you believe, neither did it begin when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich because he was hungry.

Europe in the early part of the 20th century was a good time for factions: communism, anarcho-syndicalism and a festival of less-popular -isms were battling for the support of the masses while, at the other end of the social scale, the competing imperial monarchies flexed their impressive moustaches in Africa and Asia. It was a family affair – Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Czar Nicholas II of Russia and King George V of the United Kingdom were all Queen Victoria’s grandchildren, as were the wives of five other crowned heads of Europe (*Sweden, Spain, Romania, Greece and Norway).

An unfortunate side effect of the struggle was an arms race, as no one nation could afford to get left behind. Germany and France were already at loggerheads over who owned the Alsace-Lorraine borderlands and Turkey and Russia were grumbling at each other across the Balkans.

As it was, the spark for this powder keg was provided by one of the century’s clumsiest assassination attempts. A gang of Serbian nationalists, probably associated with a terrorist group called the Black Hand, resented Austria-Hungary’s influence on their side of the border and hatched a plan to blow up the Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand (Uniquely in history, he inspired both a global war and a well-tailored indie band.) during a state visit to Sarajevo. The first conspirator chickened out as the motorcade passed by. The second threw a bomb, which missed. In the ensuing panic, the other five failed to do anything at all.

That would have been that, except that Franz Ferdinand decided later to visit the blast casualties in hospital, and his driver, unaware of a change in plans, happened to take a wrong turn. As he backed up to return to the official route, he passed the seventh member of the conspiracy, Gavrilo Princip, who had gone to get his lunch. Presumably unable to believe his luck, the 19-year-old Princip shot Franz Ferdinand and his wife five times. Too young to be executed, he was imprisoned for life but died of TB in 1918.

To cut a long story short, Austria-Hungary bullishly used the assassination as an excuse to invade Serbia. Russia unexpectedly declared war against Austria-Hungary in support of Serbia. Germany had already agreed to side with Austria-Hungary, so declared war on Russia. France came out in support of Russia, so Germany declared war on them too.

Here’s where it gets really stupid. To get to France, Germany had to go through Belgium. The Belgians refused permission, but Germany ploughed through anyway, and that’s where Britain – to Germany’s surprise – got involved, thanks to a 75-year-old treaty designed to protect Belgium’s independence. The Turks (the Ottoman Empire) joined the Germans, the Italians joined the Allies in 1915 and Bulgaria joined the Austro-Hungarians. Even America stuck its oar in towards the end. Some 15 million deaths later, the Germans (and the Austro-Hungarians, etc) lost.

Monday, 6 October 2008

WRONG: Free speech is protected in the UK

Even in America, where the First Amendment is so well known it’s practically a celebrity, freedom of speech is limited. You may not directly incite the overthrow of the government, for example, though talking in broad terms about how a hypothetical revolution might, sort of, be a good thing, is okay.

In Britain, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (enshrined in domestic law as the Human Rights Act of 1998) protects “the right to freedom of expression”. However, the less-well-quoted second paragraph adds a series of get-out clauses regarding national security, public health and safety, crime, defamation, confidentiality and judicial impartiality. In other words, free speech is not free. Speech costs, and right here’s where you start paying.

Defamation is perhaps the harshest restriction. Those accused of it in the UK are, in a sense, guilty till proven innocent. The burden of proof is on the defendant. If you’re accused of defamation – and it’s not in question that you said what they say you said – you have to prove that what you said was not defamatory. There are four grounds for this:

1. What you said was true. Eg, Jeffrey Archer is a liar. (He was convicted of perjury, therefore he is uncontestably a liar.)

2. It was “fair comment”, or, in other words, merely an opinion. But to be fair comment, a jury must agree that it is responsible, constructive and informed. They must also determine that it was not made with malice. Eg, Jeffrey Archer is not a suitable candidate for the priesthood.

3. It was in the interest of the public (as opposed to being of interest to the public) and not motivated by malice. Traditionally the case for public interest has been hard to make, but would typically involve a cabinet minister doing something unethical.

4. It was said by a peer or MP in the Houses of Parliament in the course of parliamentary proceedings, or under oath by a witness in a court of law. Additionally, a third party reporting neutrally from either of those places may repeat the claims without being guilty of defamation. Neutral reporting is not necessarily a defence in other circumstances. Saying “According to Fred Bloggs, Jeffrey Archer is a bag of shit” is just as defamatory as Fred Bloggs’ original statement. So is “Allegedly, Jeffrey Archer is a bag of shit”. The only reason newspapers get away with playing the “allegedly” card is that it’s not usually worth the plaintiff’s time and effort pursuing in court everyone who repeats an allegation after the first instance.

Unless, of course, the original statement was made by someone with no funds, but repeated by a newspaper or magazine with deep pockets and a weak case.

Another exception to the freedom of speech is the legislation concerning incitement to racial and religious hatred – in the words of the Act, you may not “stir up hatred” against anyone on racial or religious grounds. But how do you define a religion or a race? And what, precisely, constitutes “stirring up”? Is it illegal to say, “I think everyone should hate Aum Shinrikyo members”, bearing in mind that fair comment is not a defence for incitement to religious hatred? (Aum Shinrikyo is the Japanese cult behind the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo underground)

What about, “I applaud anyone willing to slap a Norwegian”?

There are many more examples of “unfree” speech:

• Perjury: you cannot lie under oath in court. Well, you can, but you’re leaving yourself open to arrest. (Jeffrey.)
• Similarly, you can’t give a judge backchat or talk out of turn, or you’ll risk being in contempt of court.
• Judges can restrict court reporting. Some cases in Family Court or involving national security are heard in camera (ie privately), and the press may not report the names of rape or blackmail victims. The press may also be subject to a temporary ban on reporting certain proceedings, such as committals, at which a magistrate decides whether there is enough evidence for a jury trial.
• You can’t plagiarise someone or otherwise infringe their copyright, though you may quote someone else’s material in a published work within legally proscribed limits.
• Technically, you can’t blaspheme against the god of the Church Of England, though recently courts have tended to leave it to Him to punish transgressors.
• You can’t make a protest within a kilometre of Parliament without a permit.
• You can’t lie about your products in advertising material.
• Breach of confidence is illegal – you may not, for example, tell anyone about your time working as Jade Goody’s personal nutritionist if your contract with her expressly forbade telling tales.

As a postscript, please don’t slap Norwegians, they’re a lovely bunch of people. Except the black metal band Mayhem. Before they even released their first album, the singer, Dead, had lived up to his name by committing suicide and the bassist Count Grishnackh had killed the guitarist Euronymous by stabbing him 24 times. The replacement guitarist, Blasphemer, later fired the replacement singer Attila (his real name, somewhat improbably) by kicking him down the stairs and smashing his head twice into a wall. The second replacement singer, Maniac, accidentally fractured a fan’s skull when he threw a severed sheep’s skull into the audience. Drummer Hellhammer, meanwhile, is the reliable band member: when not on tour he works as a night watchman in a mental hospital. Snaps to Chris Campion of The Observer for digging up the details of this story. So to speak.

Monday, 29 September 2008

WRONG: Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin

Bacteria are creatures consisting of a single cell, usually about a thousandth of a millimetre wide. They reproduce themselves in the body, or indeed anywhere warm, moist and nutritious, though there are some astonishingly resilient germs out there (not to mention in there). Deinococcus radiodurans (“terrible berry that resists radiation”), for example, can survive a dose of radiation 500 times stronger than that which would kill a human. Geothermobacterium ferrireducens prefers boiling temperatures, while leifsonia aurea likes nothing more than a sub-zero chill.

In 1928, Alexander Fleming famously noticed small areas of inhibited growth in a dish of staphylococcus, and closer inspection revealed the active agent to be penicillium mould, similar to the one that makes an encounter with gorgonzola cheese so memorable. After three years, however, Fleming gave up on his penicillium studies, believing the organism couldn’t exist long enough in the human body to be effective. Three years later he tried again, but still had difficulty persuading other researchers to help modify the mould for human use.

It wasn’t till 1942 that a patient was successfully treated with penicillin. Oxford University’s Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and Norman Heatley were the first to turn the mould into a medicine, though during the war they had to travel to Peoria, Illinois to find a lab that could produce it on a workable scale (their seed mould came from a mouldy melon on the local streetmarket).

All this, however, overlooks the work of three other scientists.

A Costa Rican toxicologist rejoicing in the name of Clodomiro Picado Twight reported his discovery of penicillium’s anti-bacterial properties to the Paris Academy Of Sciences over a series of experiments dating from 1915, long before Fleming. His work was largely ignored, and his original manuscripts were only discovered and published in 2000.

Earlier than Twight, Ernest Duchesne, a French doctor, noticed that Arab stable boys encouraged the growth of mould on saddles to help heal sores on the horses. At the age of 23, he conducted experiments that proved strains of penicillium would cure animals infected with typhus and submitted his research to the Institut Pasteur in 1897. In what was clearly to become something of a habit among French academics, the institute ignored him completely.

Even Duchesne, however, wasn’t the first. As early as 1877 the eminent British physicist John Tyndall had noticed penicillium’s effect on bacteria. While demonstrating Pasteur’s theory of the existence of microbes, he observed in one experiment that, “The penicillium was exquisitely beautiful. In every case where the mould was thick and coherent, the bacteria died.”[5] But being a physicist rather than a physician, Tyndall gave no further thought to his observation.

Fleming, Florey and Ernst Chain shared the Nobel prize in 1945 for their work on creating the therapeutic form of penicillin. Yet resistant strains of bacteria had already emerged two years later. Thanks, Darwin!