Bullshit Health Hell in a handcart Technology

Two UK schools ban wi-fi due to witchcraft fears

OK, maybe not witchcraft. But the decision isn’t based on anything sensible, either. Via The Inquirer:

The Prebendal School in Chichester and a Welsh comprehensive, Ysgol Pantycelen, have pulled the plug on their wireless networks after parents lobbied about potential effects wi-fi could have on their kids.

As the Inquirer rightly notes, there is no evidence of any health risks from wireless networks. Yes, it’s possible that there may be, but on the basis of the evidence so far it’s equally possible that wi-fi will summon Beelzebub from the very depths of Hell. On a skateboard. Wearing a diving helmet and a tu-tu.

On a related note, the next issue of PC Plus magazine has a big article on this very subject by yours truly.


ID cards

In today’s Guardian, Polly Toynbee mounts a spirited defence of ID cards. I liked this bit:

Certainly, the accuracy of information is vital – everyone needs the right to check and amend their records. But the chance of errors will be lessened, not increased, as technology advances.

Anybody with the slightest interest in tech will know how wrong that is: the problem with technology is that sooner or later, people will use it – and they’ll screw up. Here’s some words I wrote last summer for PC Plus:

The scariest part of the ID cards scheme is the database that will underpin it. As Andy Robson of the No2ID campaign ( explains: “The government is embarking on a surveillance model for the ID card; that is, a card that is linked to a massive database. They intend to put the responsibility for the accuracy of that database on the individual, [and] the individual will be liable for the cost of all changes of errors – assuming the individual is ever aware of them.” [emphasis mine]

As anyone with even a passing knowledge of government IT projects can attest, errors are inevitable: for example in 2001 the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee found errors in 65% of records on the Police National Computer; in 2002, the Department of Transport found that the DVLA database contained 10 million extra vehicles.

“It is not clear who will have access to this database, which could ultimately be linked to health, tax and criminal records [databases],” says Robson. “AIDS and other sufferers may have information that is disclosable to minor officials along with details of their earnings; people may even erroneously acquire a criminal or other record which could have a negative effect on their lives.”

Toynbee’s quick to point out that people are generally in favour of ID cards. That’s because people are misinformed. The PC Plus article again:

In December, ICM Research found that 29% of people believe ID cards are a “very good idea” and that a further 52% think they are a “good idea”. However, it seems that this support is based upon three beliefs: that ID cards fight terrorism (56% agreed), that ID cards fight benefit fraud (65%), and that ID cards will help to control illegal immigration (60%). All three beliefs are based on very shaky foundations.

The government says that ID fraud costs the UK £1.3 billion per year, but the Home Office’s own figures report that benefit fraud accounts for just £50 million of that figure; most ID fraud is related to credit card fraud, which ID cards will do nothing to address. According to Conservative MP Peter Lilley, the cost of installing ID card readers at the Department of Work and Pensions would be £1 billion, or 20 times the annual saving.

The link between ID cards and anti-terrorism is equally tenuous. In 2004, Privacy International reported: “Of the 25 countries that have been most adversely affected by terrorism since 1986, eighty per cent have national identity cards, one third of which incorporate biometrics. This research was unable to uncover any instance where the presence of an identity card system in those countries was seen as a significant deterrent to terrorist activity.”

What about illegal immigration? As No2ID notes: “We already have laws that make it illegal to employ those without UK work permits. And we already have employers that flout those laws. An ID card would no more prevent illegal working than the current laws do; such people have no problem employing illegal (and therefore unprotected) labour, and will ignore whatever measures are introduced.”

And of course, there’s the money problem. Me again:

When ID cards were first mooted in 2002, the Home Office suggested they would cost £3.1 billion; the figure is now £5.5 billion. The UK Assocation for Payment Clearing Services (APACS) has suggested that the final bill could be much higher; APACS abandoned its own plans for biometric ID systems in favour of Chip and PIN after concerns about the reliability of biometric cards.

The London School of Economics agrees: in March, its analysis of the government’s ID card proposals noted that “registration alone [could] cost more than the projected overall cost of the system”. The LSE concluded: “The proposals are too complex, technically unsafe, overly prescriptive and lack a foundation of public trust and confidence… no scheme on this scale has been undertaken anywhere in the world; smaller and less ambitious systems have encountered substantial technological and operational problems that are likely to be amplified in a large-scale, national system.”

Given that the scheme looks unlikely to come in under budget, is unlikely to dent ID fraud, won’t stop international terrorism and will have little or no effect on illegal immigration, why is the government so hell-bent on implementing it? “It is not obvious what the motives are,” says Robson. “As Peter Lilley MP famously said, it is a solution looking for a problem.”

He continues: “There are two possible scenarios. One, pressure from the EU; countries without national ID schemes are being pushed to conform. Two, that it is part of the New Labour fetish for modernisation and efficiency. In close discussion with the Government it has become obvious that they do not fully understand the technology and have inflated expectations of its benefits – expectations inflated by advice from the companies which expect to make billions from the IT contracts.”

ID cards aren’t bad because they’re potentially Orwellian: they’re bad because they’re going to be a shocking waste of money, because the system’s going to include lots of cock-ups, and because if the system gets your data wrong – for example, by wrongly flagging you as a criminal or deciding that you’re dead – it’s going to be a complex and expensive nightmare to sort the problem out.


Sorry, I meant to include this in the original post. This is a pretty good illustration of why tech types fear ID cards (again, from PC Plus):

Being dead can be a pain, especially when you’re very much alive and kicking. US man Eugene Smith spent nearly three years trying to persuade authorities that he wasn’t dead after someone stole his wallet and, while using Smith’s driving licence as identification, died in a car crash. As the Indianapolis Star reported, “A police officer stopped Smith and told him his car registration was expired and that state computer records showed he was dead. ‘He said I was dead, and because of that I was not allowed to drive,’ said Smith. ‘I agreed that it would be a hazard for a dead person to be driving.’”

Being officially dead sounds amusing, but for Smith it had serious consequences: as a “dead” man his driving licence was cancelled, which meant he lost his job as a delivery driver; the loss of income meant he had to move from his home and find cheaper accommodation. Whenever Smith contacted the authorities for help they checked the database, discovered he was dead, and assumed he was a prankster. Eventually a local politician took an interest and persuaded the authorities that Smith was considerably less dead than the database indicated.

A Canadian woman had a similar problem, when the taxman decided she was “officially dead but gainfully employed” and refused to give her a tax rebate. The problem was due to a mix-up in her lawyer’s office, which accidentally used the woman’s social security number on her mother’s death certificate; the resulting confusion took three years to solve.

Bullshit Health Media

Daily Mail “could cause cancer”, warns expert

Reading the Daily Mail could cause every conceivable kind of cancer, and massively increases the risk of breast cancer, experts fear. While other newspapers are also dangerous, the middle-market tabloid is particularly dangerous for women.

The new study, published in the journal Bigmouth Strikes Again, found a horrifying gap in current research. “We’ve looked at mobile phones, coffee and itchy fabrics as possible carcinogens,” explains the study’s author, Gary Marshall, “but nobody’s looked at the link with newspapers. It turns out that when you ask people with cancer whether they read a newspaper, most of them do – and a very high proportion of them read the Daily Mail. It’s obvious – the Daily Mail causes cancer.”

Critics suggest that Marshall’s study is “a load of shite”. As top cancer expert Mr B. Offin points out, “it’s utter nonsense. Of course you’d expect a high proportion of breast cancer sufferers to be Daily Mail readers – it’s a very popular newspaper among women in their forties and fifties. But to draw a link between newspaper reading habits and illnesses isn’t just bad science, but utterly offensive too. You might as well argue that owning legs causes cancer. It’s nonsense.”

Marshall angrily refutes the criticisms. “People who disagree with my findings are clearly part of a big global conspiracy,” he says. “Everybody panic!”

Ahem… that was sparked by this story, which suggests that mobile phone use kills your little soldiers:

Those who made calls on a mobile phone for more than four hours a day had the worst sperm counts and the poorest quality sperm, according to results released yest at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine annual meeting in New Orleans.

Doctors believe the damage could be caused by the electromagnetic radiation emitted by handsets or the heat they generate.

Hang on a minute. “Doctors believe?” This is one study, in which every single participant had a fertility problem. Surely for proper science you’d need to study an equal number of men without fertility problems and analyse their mobile phone use? And screen out other factors that may be relevant, such as diet, lifestyle, alcohol intake and so on? Allan Pacey thinks so:

Dr Allan Pacey, senior lecturer in andrology at the University of Sheffield, said “This is a good quality study but I don’t think it tackles the issue. If you’re using your phone for four hours a day, presumably it is out of your pocket for longer. That raises a big question: how is it that testicular damage is supposed to occur?”

He said mobile phone use may be a marker for other lifestyle factors known to affect sperm quality.

“Maybe people who use a phone for four hours a day spend more time sitting in cars, which could mean there’s a heat issue. It could be they are more stressed, or more sedentary and sit about eating junk food getting fat. Those seem to be better explanations than a phone causing the damage at such a great distance” he added.

Even the study’s author says it’s just a possibility, although you’ll need to read the Guardian’s story to see the quote:

Ashok Agarwal, who presented his findings at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine conference in New Orleans, stressed the study did not prove mobile phones were damaging male fertility, but urged scientists to investigate the possibility.

So, his study’s basically saying “ooh, this is interesting. Let’s have a proper look and see if it’s a coincidence or if there’s something going on here.” Could we postpone the panic until there’s some actual evidence?

Bullshit Music Technology

Glass CD sounds better. Eh?

According to this Inquirer report, there’s a new kind of CD in town.

A JAPANESE SOUND boffin has come up with a glass CD which he reckons does not warp, distort, and looks and sounds nicer than those nasty plastic creations… He said that plastic CDs were not completely transparent, information on them cannot be read perfectly. They are also susceptible to bending or warping if left in sunlight or humid areas, which leads to sound distortion.

That doesn’t make sense. CDs are digital information, so there’s either data there or there isn’t. You can certainly damage them, but putting your zeros and ones in glass instead of plastic isn’t going to make any difference to the sound quality.

Bullshit Technology

Sony boss: our rivals’ consoles are too expensive at half the price of a PS3

What on earth are they putting in Sony’s coffee? The firm’s Australian MD tied himself in knots in an interview with The Age newspaper, nicely summarised by the Inquirer:

Ephraim said that to have a good Wii you need shedloads of accessories and this makes it cost about $372. He said that $372 was a bit too much for your average Aussie family to fork out for a console, so he expects his PS2 machine to compete well against both it and the more expensive Xbox 360.

…There is little necessity to remind Ephraim that when the PS3 ships it will cost the average punter between $610 and $745.

Bullshit Hell in a handcart Technology

ID cards will cost £5.4 billion, and I’m a fecking pixie

Tim does a lovely demolition of the government’s latest made-up numbers for the cost of ID cards:

Quick numbers. 48 million or so adults, each having the card, the computers, the readers, the database, the taking of the biometrics etc etc etc. 5.4 billion?

112.50 per person over a decade? With all the changes that have to be made as people move house? Alter their details? That includes the costs to the individual as well as the system itself?

Bullshit Health Hell in a handcart

Smoking bans, again

Looks like the Scottish Executive isn’t the only group of politicians acting like complete and utter bastards over smoking:

the Department of Health is considering a Westminster council request that it should be allowed to create smoking “exclusion zones” outside bars, restaurants, clubs or workplaces so those caught smoking there could be punished.

[Via Tim Worstall]


Sonic shenanigans

This Place Is Dead linked to this incredible-sounding story:

A yob-busting alarm using ultra high sound to drive teenage thugs from shopping centres has been hijacked to create inaudible classroom ringtones.Techno-savvy school kids are getting away with using mobile phones in class through the creation of ringtones adults cannot hear.

British firm Compound Security has been praised by the police for its Mosquito device which was developed to stop teenage gangs hanging around outside shops.

Once installed on a building, it emits a high-pitched sound, like a constant insect buzzing, to drive the problem away.

It is highly effective because it cannot be heard by most people over the age of 20 but is deeply irritating to teenagers.

Now the youngsters have turned the tables by making high-pitched recordings which allow them to exchange text messages in class unheard.

Known as “Teen Buzz”, it is spread from phone to phone via text message and blue tooth technology.

I call shenanigans. It’s easy to create a tone of a specified frequency in any audio editor, and I can happily hear 15Khz, 17.5KHz and 20KHz tones (20KHz is the usual upper limit of human hearing) despite my advanced age (33), several years of iPod abuse and 16 years of playing extremely loud guitars in various rock bands. I can also hear Teen Buzz fine, despite its frequency of 18 and a bit KHz. That puts it well within most people’s hearing range – but well outside the typical frequency range attainable with mobile phone loudspeakers, which struggle with frequencies above 10KHz.