Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Frankly Newton, We Don't Give A Fig

Isaac Newton (1643-1727) was one of the greatest scientists of all time and certainly the greatest ever born in Britain. This guy managed to figure out gravity, define the laws of motion, develop the law of cooling, understand the light was made of particles, help develop calculus, and come up with the speed of sound. Every English school kid knows that. Well, make that almost every English school kid. In fact, let’s settle for about 20% of English school kids if the government has its way.

About a month ago, the British Government set up a new science curriculum with the snappy name Twenty-First Century Science GCSE. The idea was to fix a serious problem: courses like physics, chemistry and biology are not fun; they can actually be hard work. In addition, some of the people who teach these courses are not exactly the most exciting members of faculty. A lot of them could talk a hole in the side of nuclear reactor containment building. It’s tough to get young Nigel or Sophie or almost any teen-ager to sign up for courses like Physics or Chemistry.

So, instead of forcing students to study boring science stuff, the new classes are based on discussions of ‘science in the news’. Organic Farming, Global Warming and Mobile Phone Technology are a few of the catchy new topics. You and Your Genes is sure to be a hit, Radiation and Life will come in very handy in case of a nuclear attack, and The Uses of Cannabis is expected to attract 73% of the population of Britain between the ages of 13 and 55 (a huge spur to continuing education).

Quite what all this excitement has to do with training future scientists is not clear. However, if the future of global competitiveness is based on having highly trained organic farmers who can send a text message to a bird who glows in the dark while stoned out of their minds, Britain is on to a real winner here.

Of course, (as is always the case) there are a few spoil sports who think that dumping poor old Newton and his scientific heirs is out of order. David Perks, head of physics at Graveney School, London, describes the changes as a "dumbing down" science. In a particularly small minded attack, Baroness Mary Warnock says, "Far too much teaching at school has already degenerated into this kind of debate, more suitable for the pub than the school room."

H I’s Education Editor, Montagu Bothersby, based at the Pig & Whistle, North London, reports that the comments of the Baroness have deeply offended the regulars. Barman Sid Frost said, “If darts ain’t about calculus, and having a flutter on the horses ain’t about probability, and makin’ sure I pump one square pint every time ain’t about physics, then I’m a monkey’s.”

So, as the Government proceeds to tell Mr Newton to get stuffed, there may be a back-up plan. If global competitiveness turns out to be based on who can pass a friendly evening hitting the bulls-eye, winning a few quid on the ponies, and consistently making accurate liquid measurements while getting slowly pissed, there will always be an England.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Throwing The Bums Out?

As a service to American readers who think that the entire House of Representatives should be tossed out regardless of political party, H I’s resident political scientist at Big Bubba’s Bait Shop and Bar in Pungo, Virginia has drafted a letter that can be sent to any candidate running against an incumbent Member of the House.

Dear Challenger

I’m not sure exactly what you stand for but I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. If your opponent hasn’t been able to prove that you kidnapped the Lindbergh baby or founded the local chapter of the Osama Bin Laden Fan Club by now, you’re probably innocent of those things. So this letter is an IOU; on 7 November, I’ll honor my IOU by voting for you. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that as soon as you are elected you only have two years to convince me to vote for you again. If you don’t, I won’t. As far as I am concerned, the odds against you winning a second term will be 98% against you on day 1. If you want to beat those odds, there are a few things you might think about doing over the next two years.

Once a month, account for your time - nothing too elaborate, mind you. You can just list the month’s hours in a few major categories like ‘studying issues’, ‘identifying problems’, ‘setting priorities’, and ‘developing solutions’. Please provide examples of each. There is also the ‘get re-elected’ category and that’s ok. (Hint: this should not contain more than 5% of the month’s hours.)

Once a month, when Congress is in session, account for your votes. Just list every vote you did and didn’t participate in and give a brief explanation of why your position was good for the country and/or your district. (Hint: you get extra points for being brief and for not using the phrase ‘the people’s business’).

Once a month, account for what you cost – after all, it is my money. Just add up salary, benefits, perks like publicly funded travel, postage, staff and office costs, entertainment, and the rest, and divide the total by the hours worked each month. (Hint: if your hourly cost is ten times more than the average voter’s hourly income, you lose points.)

I may not agree with everything you do in the next two years, but if you account for yourself every month that just might get you another two years.

You don’t have to produce a monthly report on what you’re worth. I’ll decide that on my own.

Sincerely yours

PS: If the above all sounds too much like a real job, please let me know right away so I can skip voting this time and start working for an independent candidate for the 2008 election.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Do Not Collect $200

It is important for companies to keep their products updated and the folks who own the popular game Monopoly obviously realise that. Since it was invented in 1935, the basics of Monopoly have stayed pretty much the same. Properties, hotels, utilities and railroads, trips to jail, and the colour coded currency of the game are familiar to generations of players.

As of November, that will change. The railroads will be replaced by airports. New landmarks and addresses such as Times Square, Waikiki Beach, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Rodeo Drive will appear. Monopoly money will be reissued in higher denominations. No one except peasants in Bangladesh thinks taking the trouble to ‘Pass Go’ is worth a lousy $200.

Monopoly fans have been invited to participate in this exercise and will get to vote for their favourite landmarks and where they appear on the game board. (Announcing the results of this election in November will give the 87% of Americans who couldn’t care less about which time-servers are elected to Congress something to get excited about.)

In the spirit of innovation, H I is happy to suggest a few updates to the popular Chance and Community Chest cards that make the game so much fun.

Go directly to jail or pay a lawyer $400,000 and write a book.

Take a flight from JFK and miss 93 turns waiting for take off.

You have come second in a beauty contest. Pay $17,000 for plastic surgery.

You have become a jihadi. Blow up the hotels on Times Square.

You have had a bad day. Sue the player to your left for $2,000,000.

Proceed directly to Go and collect $47.32 after taxes.

You have no imagination and six teeth. Win $150,000,000 in the lottery.

Get a permit to build a hotel on Waikiki Beach. Slip a politician $90,000 under the table.

You have been diagnosed as psychotic. Donate all your money to Scientology.

If you own both energy companies, rig the accounts and get $87,000,000,000.

You don’t have as much money as you want. Blame the player to your right.

Spill your drink and demand compensation from the banker.

What better way to have a fun family evening and introduce the kids to the lessons of modern life.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Naming Conventions

Given the great issues of our times, it’s good to see the legislative and executive branches of the US government sharing the workload. The US Congress has responded by deciding to focus on the difficult challenge of naming post offices. According to the Congressional Research Service, post office naming is now the most common form of legislation. Apparently, debating whether a local post office named after Walt Disney or Frank Sinatra has a nicer ring to it affects the very future of the Republic

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security has agreed to address the problem of border security head-on. The DHS has just announced the winner in a multi-billion dollar competition to get control of America’s land frontiers.

Northrup Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Boeing all submitted proposals to fence, fortify and over-fly the Mexican border to detect and capture illegal immigrants. Lockheed Martin proposed the use of observation blimps although there was some concern that they would be mistaken for piñatas and attract several million Mexicans thinking they contained hard candies and party favours.

Raytheon’s solution included installing tens of thousands of sensors on the border hooked up to the Google Earth mapping system. It seems that border patrol agents would have been able to enter search terms such as ‘Speedy Gonzales’ or ‘Frito Bandito’ and get an immediate fix on an illegal entrant. Predictably, Northrup Grumman offered an airplane-based solution to the problem. Boeing’s winning bid proposes the construction of 1,800 border towers since it believes airplanes cost too much.

The dark horse in this competition was Swedish mobile phone maker Ericson. Doug Smith, the company’s Vice President for Governmental Solutions, says that border security comes down to a “big broad-band wireless solution”. Providing border agents with 1,000 free minutes a month to call for reinforcements was a powerful argument. Smith pointed out that “we don’t need a Star Wars-type solution here.”

If Smith is right, there is still time to reopen the bidding and give the Iraqi government a shot at the business. If a Star Wars-type solution is not what you want, the latest plan to secure the borders of their capital is a perfect fit. The Boys from Baghdad are planning to dig a 50 mile trench around the city to control who comes in and out. Here is a chance for the new government of Iraq to show their gratitude to the US for bringing the benefits of democracy to their country. If a 50 mile trench can keep Al Qaeda out of Baghdad, a 1,951 mile trench along the US-Mexican border is an obvious answer to keeping assorted gardeners, hotel maids and Mariachi bands out of Arizona and New Mexico.

Of course, a ditch separating the United States and Mexico might be considered a bit too low-tech by the DHS. The Iraqis might want to consider a joint proposal with Perrier, Evian or Pellegrino. $2 billion should be enough to dig the new ditch and fill it with water, providing a critical line of defence for America.

The new watery ditch could also provide an opportunity for the US Congress to focus their attention on border security and do what they do best. They could name the new ditch. Rio Grande has a nice ring to it.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Rule Of Law

It looks as if Sudan is finally responding to international pressure to respond to civilized norms and to improve its record on human rights. The Sudanese National Commission for International Humanitarian Law has just announced an agreement to work with the International Committee of the Red Cross “with a view to ensuring that the rules of humanitarian law are duly incorporated into domestic legislation.”

Of course, skeptics will question whether the Khartoum government is serous about joining the Axis of Niceness or getting their legal system up to the level of North Korea or Zimbabwe. Restarting a 21 year-old civil war in the south of the country and murdering 200,000 people in Darfur does present a bit of a public relations problem. These guys have even managed to get Kofi Annan upset with them and The Kofer has threatened to call for a UN Commission to Worry About Sudan as soon as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Santa Lucia is completed in 2009.

In order to counter accusations that the Sudanese legal system is out of step with modern jurisprudence, the boys from Khartoum only have to point to the case of Mr Alifi’s goat.

Mr Tombe, a neighbour, apparently noticed that Mr Alifi had a goat (there is no claim that Mr Tombe actually said “ee-i-ee-i-o”). There is a claim, however, that Mr Tombe got to know the goat in question in the Biblical sense

According to Mr Alifi, he heard a loud noise around midnight on 13 February and rushed outside to investigate. He claims, "When I asked him: 'What are you doing there?', he fell off the back of the goat, so I captured and tied him up". Having discovered the accused in the act of goatus interruptus, Mr Alifi did what any law-abiding citizen would do; he decided to let the law take its course. As a result, Mr Tombe has a new wife and Mr Alifi has pocketed a very nice dowry. It is not clear if the goat has gotten used to wearing a burkha yet. "We have given him the goat, and as far as we know they are still together," Mr Alifi said.

Sources in H I’s Sudan Bureau at the Khartoum Khorner Khebab Shoppe in the Kentish Town Road, North London have revealed additional facts about this case. It is claimed that Mr Tombe decided to have his way with the goat because Mr Alifi’s camel had a headache. At the trial, Mr Tombe was offered the choice of marrying the goat or becoming a suicide bomber. After being informed that he could not substitute 72 sheep for the standard 72 virgins after he arrived in paradise, he agreed to make an honest goat out of the goat. Speaking through a translator, a good natured Mr Tombe said, “it’s not all that bad…most of the women in this village are real dogs.”

The Speaker of the Arab Parliament, Mohammad Jassem Al-Saqer, has urged the UN not to enforce resolution 1706 which calls for an international peace keeping force to prevent genocide in Sudan’s Darfur province. He may have a point.

After all, mass murder, forced migration, starving millions, lack of medical services, and the total destruction of all means of life support might not be pretty to watch. But how can anyone really get upset with a country that makes it illegal to get someone’s goat?

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Physician, Do No Harm

There is some argument about whether Hippocrates was born in 470 or 460 BC in Ancient Greece. But there is no doubt that he is the guy who came up with the Hippocratic Oath. That’s the promise that doctors have been making for over 2,500 years: to follow a professional code of conduct, to work for the good of their patients, to avoid violating the morals of their community, and to do no harm. That is, until the US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services got into the act.

It seems that this outfit paid out $275 million last year to get doctors to assess elderly Medicare patients’ reactions to chemotherapy. For an extra $130 per visit, reactions like pain, fatigue and nausea were included in the evaluation and then reported on. Apparently pain, fatigue and nausea assessments are optional extras; for an extra $130 your physical examination can be super sized! Unfortunately for the Medicare patients, their share of this cost was $26. Unfortunately for US taxpayers, the government’s share was $104. Fortunately for the doctors, the odd $130 can add up to more than a golf club membership if you upgrade enough of those bothersome office appointments to examinations.

About 90% of eligible health care providers went along with this idea and the average provider earned a cool $23,000 from the Feds for noticing that Mrs Goldfarb was in agony and throwing up in the waiting room before collapsing on the little practice putting machine in the office. The top ten noticers pocketed more than $270,000 and one Hippocratic heir in Kansas picked up $507,563. This would be a nifty idea if the results of all this noticing and assessing and reporting were actually worth anything.

Unfortunately, Daniel Levinson, Inspector General of the US Department of Health and Human Services reported “numerous gaps and anomalies in the data and collection methods”. In a strong defence of the medical profession, after reviewing the programme, the Congressional Medical Advisory Commission reported that “Most oncologists did not believe it would lead to quality improvements for patients or produce any useful research findings”. The Commission did not report on how many little practice putting machines were saved from irreparable damage.

All is not lost. After all, Bill Frist, (Republican-Tennessee) the majority leader of the US Senate, is a doctor and he can surely get to the bottom of this story. High ranking Congressional sources assure H I that Bill will use his extensive medical background to review this sordid tale as soon as he has convinced Tennessee not to lift his medical license. What with all the pressures of spending $275 million on gathering useless research findings and diagnosing brain dead Floridians based on looking at home movies, Bill has not had the time to meet the state’s continuing education requirements for physicians. As soon as the Senator wraps up his presidential campaign, there should be plenty of time to get caught up. In the meantime, there is a huge demand for his medical skills. The United States is full of people who are suffering from pain, nausea and fatigue at the thought of Senator Frist running for President.

Alas, there is no record that Hippocrates ever ran for public office. It would have been handy if he had come up with an oath that said Politician, Do No Harm.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Is It Or Isn't It?

In a disturbing update to H I’s exclusive coverage of the recent meeting of the International Astronomical Union in Prague, it appears that the issue of whether Pluto is a full fledged planet is not settled. Charges of ‘bad science’, ‘national self-interest’ and ‘election fraud’ are swirling around the IAU.

On the last day of the meeting, 424 of the 2,500 delegates showed up to vote to change Pluto’s status to ‘dwarf planet’. Apparently the rest of the delegates were sleeping off hangovers in the Czech beer capital. In their absence, the insurgent ‘dynamicist’ faction passed a controversial definition of a planet that had the effect of an asteroid hitting the earth. They decided that a planet is “a celestial body that is in orbit around the sun, has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a nearly round shape, and has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit." The opposition ‘planetary geologist’ faction has gone into its own orbit.

NASA immediately launched a withering attack on the ‘rigged vote’. The US New Horizons mission to Pluto is about 6 months into a nine and a half year flight to study what it thinks is a planet. A high ranking NASA source told H I, “Imagine driving 30 miles to a really nice restaurant only to find out that it’s a McDonalds. Besides, half the people who live in trailer parks in Alabama fit that stupid definition.” It is reported that the White House is considering sending the 101st Airborne Division in to restore democracy to the IAU.

Athanasios Stavrodopolous, of Athens’ Asteroskopeio Dimotikos observatory, immediately demanded €50 billion compensation from the EU. “Pluto is a Greek god and this is a question of national honour. Believe me, Greece will not sell its national honour for less, or certainly not for much less!” Italy responded by threatening to mobilize the marching band of its Astronautica Gloriana Division to defend the Roman god Jupiter.

Defending the Dynamicist position, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a specialist in neutron stars from Northern Ireland, urged the opposition “to look on the bright side”. Apparently even dwarf planets have bright sides. Mickey O’Leary, president of PIRA (Provisional Irish Republican Astronomers) responded ‘Fawk dat, never surrender!” He announced that PIRA was considering a bombing campaign against the Jodrell Bank radio telescope in the UK.

Michael Brown, who started this controversy by discovering a ‘new planet’ called 2003 UB313 was philosophical about the results of the election. “I may go down in history as the guy who killed Pluto.” He was very relieved however, that the other Michael Brown would go down in history as the guy who killed New Orleans.

There is obviously a need for another election. Perhaps Jimmy Carter can be persuaded to observe it. Perhaps the Planetary Geologists Party can stay sober long enough to vote. Or perhaps everyone can agree to let Pat Robertson decide the answer. After all, he is the person who discovered that the entire universe is only 8,257 years old.


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