Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Going nucular

Someone once told me (in the days before it became possible to easily check whether this might be an urban legend) that the Spanish pronounce the letter 'c' as a 'th' sound because there was once a King of Spain (Ferdinand?) who spoke with a lisp, and his subjects duly copied him. Had this been true, it would have been an example of a change in language caused by what linguists call prestige borrowing, although I don't know if the Spanish subjects would have copied the lisp for prestige, or because they expected the Spanish inquisition if they didn't.

The other day, listening to the radio, I was surprised to hear a Government spokesman (whose name unfortunately I missed) speaking about the future for nucular power in the U.K. I don't think this mispronunciation of 'nuclear' is common here, and it sounded quite awkward coming from an otherwise well-spoken Englishman. Was he trying to borrow some prestige from that great nuculariser George Dubya? Or perhaps he's a fan of Homer "You know boys, a nucular reactor is a lot like a woman" Simpson.

Who knows? As Homer said: "English? Who needs that? I'm never going to England!"

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Parliamentary language (again)

Another Wednesday, yet another Prime Minister's Questions. P.M. Blair's favoured word today was absolutely, featuring a total of 11 times:

1 x absolutely vital
2 x absolutely right
1 x absolutely necessary
4 x absolutely clear
2 x absolutely typical
1 x absolutely essential

In my dictionary, this usage of absolutely (as an 'intensive') is disapproved of, but this goes further than bad usage. When the Prime Minister says that something is absolutely vital, he's saying it's not just very vital, or even extremely vital; it's absolutely, without question vital. The clarity of vision of an evangelising lawyer is not to be questioned, even at Prime Minister's Questions.

Anyway, there's a new Song For The Day in the side panel. It's a song about the war by Anaïs Mitchell (MySpace page here), from her fine album Hymns For The Exiled.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Cutty Sark: a nation mourns

The news in Britain today has been dominated by... a fire on an old boat!

Readers outside these shores may be as puzzled by this as I am. As boats go, it wasn't even especially old (built less than 150 years ago). It wasn't involved in any famous naval victories, didn't discover the North West Passage, it wasn't particularly good at what it did do (although more so than its fellow clipper, the Blackadder, which was dismasted on her maiden voyage). Cutty Sark travelled halfway round the globe and back, braving the seas around the Cape of Good Hope, to bring us our tea!

Oh well, time to put the kettle on...

Friday, 18 May 2007


If you haven't heard it already, have a listen to the Young Rapture Choir's cover version of Laura Veirs' "Magnetized".

Laura Veirs talks about the choir here.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

ID Cards: friend or foe?

There are many compelling reasons to be concerned about the U.K. Government's ID Card scheme, most of them presented (far more cogently than I could blog about them) on the No2ID campaign website. The spiralling costs, the unproven technology, the threat to civil liberties, the lack of any convincing argument to support the assertion that the cards will somehow protect us from terrorism and identity theft... the list goes on.

One objection that isn't often raised, at least in the media that I access, is what seems to me to be a fundamental flaw in the Government's understanding of the significance of biometric identification - not just in terms of its accuracy or feasibility, but in a failure to grasp what the point of biometrics is.

I worked for a while for a Belgian company that developed biometric products. One way they promoted these was in the form of a biometrically equipped VW Beetle, which neatly demonstrated the potential of biometrics - the convenience of unlocking your car at the touch of a finger on the scanner controlling the door locks, starting the engine by voice command and, most importantly, not having to carry keys around with you any more; keys that can be stolen, lost or copied. The same idea can be (and is already, in places) applied to ATMs: build in an iris-scanner and there's no need for bank cards and pin numbers any more. The point is that biometric ID removes the need for keys and cards, which not only clutter your pockets but are easily compromised. You are identitified by your biology. The best biometric data, if it was conveniently checkable, would be your DNA profile; meanwhile, fingerprints and iris-scans are secure enough.

The Government's intention is to maintain a register of all persons who are entitled to be in the country, and to have the means to check whether an individual is recorded on that register. It might like to do more (in terms of tax collection for example), but I'm using the Government's own arguments as to the necessity for an ID card system (i.e. to counter identity theft and terrorism). It will do this by recording the biometric data of all its citizens, and storing it on a central database. This is all that is required for their stated purposes. No need for a card. The relevant authorities are equipped with biometric readers, and when they need to identify someone, it's a simple(!) matter of checking their fingerprints and iris-scans against the database.

But the Government proposes that this centralised data will be duplicated and stored on our individual personal cards. Functionally, this adds nothing to the system except an extra layer of complexity and cost, and potential security problems. Imagine the scene:

PC: "Excuse me sir, can I see your expensive and redundant identity card?"
X: "Certainly, officer, unless I've left it at home or lost it, or it's been stolen... No, here it is."
PC: "Mm, looks a bit dodgy to me. Would you mind just putting your finger on this scanner, and I'll check you on the central database..."

The card system is equivalent to having biometric locks on your car doors but still needing a key to open them. I suspect that the Government doesn't see the redundancy of the card because seeing it requires what might be called systems thinking. Long ago, when I applied for my first job as a trainee programmer, I had to take an aptitude test to see whether I had the mental "right stuff" to make a programmer. I'd guess that members of the Government might not score very highly in such a test.

I'd also guess that they have been impressed by potential suppliers of the technology required for their system. All of the biometric technologies (face and voice recognition, fingerprints etc.) are prone to error (see this report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation). After September 11, worried American airports carried out many trials of face recognition security systems. Results were, to say the least, disappointing. The American Civil Liberties Union said in a report: "Anyone who claims that facial-recognition technology is an effective law-enforcement tool is probably working for one of the companies trying to sell it to the government".

Perhaps the one consolation is that, given the story so far of government-sponsored IT, there is probably little chance of a working IT card system being implemented. Meanwhile, though, the estimated costs have risen sharply to £5.31 billion. Not quite as much as the Trident submarine programme, but about as useless, and give it time...

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Fire at Will's

Our contribution to global warming (although it's turned a bit chilly today). We enjoyed a day in a friend's garden on Saturday, ending with the traditional fire dance of The Burning Clippings.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Parliamentary language

Another Wednesday, another Prime Minister's Questions. Once again Blair brushed aside the questions with his usual bluster and statistics. Today's favoured word seems to have been immense. He used the word (or the adjectival immensely) at least seven times, and on three occasions, in answer to questions about MI5's anti-terrorism activities, he used it in a very odd way, e.g. "The committee went into immense detail" and "...looked into it in immense detail."

Well call me a pedant, but to me, details are tiny, not immense; a more appropriate phrase would have been "The committee went into the minutest detail". More worryingly, he also used the word believe seven times. Tony Blair's beliefs frighten me. They're usually presented in the form: "Yes, I've seen the evidence, but I still believe that..." followed by some bizarre assertion that e.g. invading Iraq was the right thing to do, or that ID cards are a good idea.

Which reminds me, I must have a good rant about ID cards before too long. Watch this space.

Hitting the high notes

There's a new Song For The Day in the side panel. It's a rather spooky recording of Alessandro Moreschi singing the Gounod/Bach Ave Maria, one of the many treasures to be found at the wonderful Live Music Archives. It must take a lot of balls for a man to sing like this.