Friday, 25 April 2008

WRONG: You are legally obliged to pay all your debts

A peculiarity of contracts is that they can be valid – ie both parties agree to the terms – but still unenforceable. In the UK, gambling debts are the most famous example. Hard to believe though it sounds, you are not legally obliged to pay any losses incurred through gambling. This is why bookmakers laugh like hyenas and reach for the hammer at the mention of credit.

Prostitution is another instance. If a client refuses to pay for services rendered, the prostitute is out of luck, legally as well as financially, even though the transaction itself is not strictly illegal. The flip side is that if she takes her payment in advance, she can refuse to get down to business and be equally unassailable in law.

In the US, government spies’ employment contracts are officially unenforceable. In the case of Tenet Vs Doe in 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that “John Doe”, a Russian diplomat who spied for the CIA, couldn’t sue to claim benefits owed him by the Agency because such a lawsuit would violate the condition of secrecy that the original contract demanded. All of which makes you wonder why they bothered with a contract in the first place.

Outside of these specific cases, however, you have to pay up, or file for bankruptcy, which means you won’t be able to sit in Parliament. Another life’s ambition thwarted.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

WRONG: Britain hasn't been invaded since 1066

History teachers – especially patriotic ones – like to say that the battle of Hastings marked the last time Britain was invaded. As with so many things, however, it depends on your perspective.

For example, the Channel Islands were invaded during WWII. Strictly, they're not part of the United Kingdom, being Crown Dependencies, with the Queen as their sovereign. Churchill decided in 1940 that they would be of more value to the UK as a drain on German resources than as a tactical location, and so abandoned them to five years of occupation, the last of them under siege and in near-starvation conditions. Even under a force of one armed German (as opposed to a one-armed German) for every five citizens, the locals still managed a cheeky resistance. When commissioned to design postage stamps for local use, artist Edmund Blampied put two artful curlicues in plain view on the threepenny stamp (see bottom right of this link) that to the locals – but not the Germans – clearly spelled “GR” (for George VI).

Despite the German surrender, the occupation is still the most successful attempt to invade Britain since the Norman conquest – even though the Channel Islands aren’t in Britain – because the others have ranged from merely short-lived to farcical.

Geographically if not politically, Scotland has always been part of Great Britain and suffered its own invasion (not counting the English ones, nor the Scots’ invasions of England). In 1263 King Haakon IV of Norway sailed to Scotland with the intention of recapturing the Hebrides, but following a battle at Largs on the Firth of Clyde, the Scots deviously prolonged diplomatic talks in order take advantage of the worsening weather, which played havoc with the invaders’ fleet. Norway renounced its claim to the Hebrides three years later.

In 1797 the French made a hilarious attempt to invade Wales. A 1400-strong force landed near Fishguard, but the largely conscripted troops lived up to the national stereotype and surrendered almost immediately when faced with the wrath of the local womenfolk. (The local menfolk may have observed the invaders with some sympathy.) One Jemima Nicholas, a 41-year-old cobbler, singlehandedly captured twelve using only a pitchfork. The traditional local dress of tall black hats and red cloaks, it would seem, led the invaders to mistake the women for Grenadiers. A huge store of looted Portuguese wine may have contributed to their confusion.

Finally, William of Orange gets an honorary mention for invading England, though with the famed good manners of the Dutch he waited till he was invited. The Protestant grandson of Charles I arrived at Brixham, Devon in 1688 with some 15,000 soldiers, and a month later the Catholic King James II had fled the country, leaving it to the Protestant William and his wife, Mary. The Dutch briefly renamed New York “New Orange” in their honour.

Monday, 21 April 2008

WRONG: There's more violent crime around the full moon

Before we get down to the statistics, let’s just skip right past werewolves. We’ll also ignore the moon’s spurious connection to menstruation. (The human menstrual cycle is 28 days. The lunar cycle is 29.5 days – there is no more connection between the two than there is between the moon and a chimp’s 37-day menstrual cycle.)

The belief in a connection between the moon and human behaviour is amazingly pervasive. Even the Sussex Constabulary believes that violent behaviour increases around the full moon. In 2007, Inspector Andy Parr announced that extra police would be deployed on full moon nights, and that, “From my experience over 19 years of being a police officer, undoubtedly on full moons we do seem to get people with, sort of, stranger behaviour – more fractious, argumentative.”

Even medical staff are susceptible: Dr David Mandell canvassed the surgical nurses in his hospital in Pittsburgh in 2005 and found that 69 percent of them believed that a full moon resulted in greater social disorder and a higher number of admittances.

So what’s the cause of this apparent misbehaviour? Some would argue that it’s the “tidal pull” of the moon – if it can make the seas rise, then surely it can have an effect on beings that are predominantly composed of water, can’t it?

No, it can’t.

Everything that has mass has gravity, and gravity’s strength decreases greatly over distance. As the diligent moon-studiers Ivan Kelly, James Rotton and Roger Culver noted in their thorough demolition of full-moon myths, “A mother holding her child will exert 12 million times as much tidal force on her child as the moon”. And yet we don’t put a toddler’s tantrums down to mum’s gravitational influence.

Kelly, Rotton and Culver compared over 100 studies on the effect of the moon on behaviour and found that there was no statistically significant difference during any phase of the moon in the rates of homicide, traffic accidents, assaults, psychiatric admissions or dozens of other areas (including aggression among professional hockey players – I said they were thorough). As for the effect on mental health, they found that phases of the moon accounted for 0.03 per cent of a difference in “lunatic” behaviours. Daffodils have a more statistically significant effect on mental health.

(That was a guess. I don't have any stats on daffodils.)

While there are many studies that appear to show a connection between the moon and crime, Kelly, Rotton and Culver’s meta-analysis demonstrates that there are just as many proving the opposite. Dr Cathy Owen of Sydney University, for example, undertook an exhaustive study of aggressive behaviour among inmates of five psychiatric clinics in Sydney over six months, from “low-level threats” to assault and suicide. She and her team concluded that there was “No significant relationship between level of violence and aggression and any phase of the moon.”

Dr David Lester looked at all the violent deaths in America over a two-year period, and while he noticed that suicide was more common on Mondays and that murders tended to happen more on Saturdays, Sundays and on national holidays, there was no detectable lunar influence whatsoever.

The perception of increased bad behaviour at the full moon is most likely down to two things. First, beliefs can linger and be reinforced by communities, even police forces and hospitals, simply because they are plausible, appealing and difficult to immediately disprove. If, as a rookie policeman, you are told by an experienced officer that the nutters all come out at full moon, you’ll be likely to accept the belief, then subsequently attribute any crazy behaviour at that time to the moon, and ignore or play down identical behaviour at other times of the month.

Second, the full moon may not affect human behaviour but it certainly enables it: common sense indicates that brighter nights will encourage opportunistic criminals. This may explain the Sussex Constabulary’s figures.

While we’re on the subject of moon myths, it’s popularly held that the moon doesn’t rotate in its orbit, because if it did, we’d be able to see the “dark” side. In fact, the moon’s rotation is precisely why we only see the man in the moon – to a greater or lesser degree – every night: the moon spins exactly once for every orbit it makes of the earth. If you’re having trouble visualising this, draw a face on a grapefruit (or tennis ball, or sea urchin – amazingly it makes no difference) and “orbit” it around your finger while keeping the face looking at the finger. You’ll notice that you have to revolve it to do so. If you didn’t, your finger would see the dark side of the grapefruit.

The dark side of the moon, by the way - or the far side as astronomers prefer - is only dark during the full moon – it sees as much of the sun as the familiar side, but we never get to look at it ourselves from earth. According to astronaut William Anders, who orbited the moon, “The backside looks like a sand pile my kids have played in for some time. It's all beat up, no definition, just a lot of bumps and holes.” Here it is.