Archive for May, 2009

A Campaign I Can Get Behind

Friday, May 29th, 2009

I’ve been saying this for a long time now. Those “child safety” covers for power sockets — invariably peddled by charlatans who claim to know more than the professional engineers who designed the British ring main system more than 60 years ago — do not work.

For one thing, they are totally unnecessary. BS1363, the standard for the 13 amp plug and socket,mandates internal safety shutters in every socket outlet. If you look at any nearby power socket — whether on the wall or on an extension lead, they all have to conform to BS1363 — you will see that the Live and Neutral holes are covered up. The only place you can insert anything is the Narth hole, which is safe to touch anyway. The insertion of a plug pin into the Earth hole retracts the shutters from over the Live and Neutral holes. And the lengths of the pins on the plug and the depths of the shutters are specified such that this only begins to happen when the body of the plug is safely covering the socket.

But “safety” covers can actually make things worse. If a cover is removed (and don’t underestimate what kids are capable of), it can be inserted the wrong way around, thus opening the safety shutters and allowing an object to be inserted into the live socket receptacle. This can’t be done with a BS1363 plug, because the dimensions are such that the Live and Neutral pins would collide with the faceplate before the Earth pin entered far enough to retract the shutters. But these covers are made of thin, flexible plastic and can bend out of the way just enough to fit in upside down.

Some “safety” covers even allowed room for objects to be inserted into the “Live” hole even while the cover was in place.

And what happens when direct sunlight shines on plastic? Answer, it becomes brittle. “Safety” covers used on sockets in a conservatory or any South-facing room may well perish and, in the worst case, break off — leaving the Earth pin firmly retained in the socket by the sprung brass contacts, and the Live and Neutral holes wide open.

See the campaign web site at http://www.fatallyflawed.org.uk/.

What Theodore Kaczynski Got Wrong

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

I have read Industrial Society and Its Future, and had to agree with parts of it. One thing I think the author got wrong, though, was Paragraph 208 et seq.

Kaczynski distinguishes between “small-scale technology”, which he considers benign; and “organization-dependent technology”, which he considers toxic. I would argue that the distinction is better drawn between open technology (where users are permitted to inspect, modify and improve it) and proprietary technology (where this is absolutely not the case; inspection, modifications and improvements are reserved privileges, and the full force of the law will be brought upon anyone who dares even to try to usurp them).

Proprietary technology is necessarily organisation-dependent, since for there to be a privilege requires for there to be a privilege-holder. However, mere dependency on the presence of some organisational structure does not necessarily render any technology proprietary. I am taking as a premise that organisation-dependency is not, in and of itself, a bad thing; and if you consider this assertion to be a bold one, consider that humans possess a strong pack instinct, which leads naturally to the formation of organisational structures.

It’s true that open technology tends to be primitive, and proprietary technology tends to be advanced. This is probably because primitive technology is harder to keep proprietary than advanced technology, and also because we tend to regard less-universally-comprehensible technology as more advanced. Furthermore, even the breakdown of the rule of law would not be a sufficient condition to enable “unauthorised” actions in respect of the most egregious examples of proprietary technology: if the inner workings of something are a jealously-guarded secret and not obvious by inspection, adapting it requires access to privileged information — which might conceivably be unavailable altogether.

Anyway, I disagree with Kaczynski’s assertion that “it would be virtually impossible for a handful of local craftsmen to build a refrigerator”. Anyone who knows that P * V = n * R * T and can think laterally could build a refrigerator. It might not look like what we think of today as a refrigerator (Kaczynski correctly identifies some serious difficulties with generating electricity, which might be overcome by using some other energy source to compress the gas), but it would certainly perform the abstract function of a refrigerator: the creation of a localised region of space whose temperature is lower than that of its surroundings.

The biggest obstacle to anyone seeking to build a refrigerator from scratch, armed with naught but the Ideal Gas Equation and a healthy dose of creative problem solving, would not be lack of imagination; but Robert Boyle, standing over them with a big stick, and demanding that nobody else make use of “his” discovery.

Subtle Irony

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

Does anybody else think this was a badly-chosen name for the product?
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Benefitting Nobody

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

Once upon a time, there was such a thing as full employment. And before nearly all the council houses were sold off at stupidly low prices, getting pregnant was not the only way to get one.

Nowadays, people can be better off on benefits than in employment. You see, when you are working, you have to start paying for things which would have been free if you were on the Dole — prescriptions, dental work, and so forth. And the minimum wage is a complete joke. 5.77 an hour would be an insult, even if that was after tax. There is a complicated and confusing system of tax credits for working families, which puts people off applying for them.

There is another, hidden cost to the benefit culture. I work bloody hard for what I’ve got, and I take bloody good care of it. If I break something, or lose it, nobody’s going to just buy me another one. A kid who gets a 70 pair of Nike trainers out of their mum’s benefit simply isn’t going to be so careful. It’s easy come, easy go. If it took them a full day to earn the price of those trainers, they might appreciate the value of them — and realise that other people also value their possessions. People are not born knowing right from wrong; they have to learn the difference. Not having to work for things means people never learn respect for property.

Unemployment should not be punished, but neither should it be seen as an attractive option.
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The Myth of Choice

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

Choice as is presented to working-class consumers these days is an illusion. The capitalists present us with a choice between shit or shite. If we choose shit, they say it’s our fault we ended up with shit — we should have chosen shite instead. And vice versa.

I can buy Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, or any store’s own-brand cola-flavoured beverage-effect substance. They will all rot my teeth and make me fat (OK ….. fatter). Is that really a choice?

If I had a car, I could choose between Shell, Texaco, BP, Esso or a few other bands of petrol; but they’re all made from unsustainable fossil fuels. Is that really a choice?

I can choose where I get my electricity from. In theory. In practice, it’s exactly the same stuff. It comes down the same wires, from the same power stations. All the companies (basically, “middlemen” who buy electricity off the power generating companies — who won’t deal in small amounts, for no better reason than because they just hate counting small change — and then sell it to poor sods like you and me) seem to promise me lower bills than any of the others. But none of them can guarantee me that not one single joule of the electricity they supply to me will be generated by the criminally-insane method of burning natural gas, which is too useful a fuel in its own right to waste on centralised electricity production. Is that really a choice?

(I’m sure that one or more of them may offer an “offsetting programme”, where they charge me more money for electricity generated by gas and pay some sort of guilt-money, which (if it actually gets to its destination) is meant to be spent on planting trees or bribing some third-world peasant to irrigate his fields using a hand pump rather than a diesel pump. Trees may reduce CO2 in the atmosphere, with about a fifth of the efficiency of algae, but they won’t put that gas back under the ground (not for millions of years, at any rate); and I don’t begrudge third-world peasants the use of the machine tools that might actually help the luckiest ones end up as something other than peasants. However you dress it up, it’s Not The Same Thing.)